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.

Monday, 9 January 2017

a tinnitus of goldfinches..?

Is there something uniquely miserable about January rain lidded by a blewit sky?
The chains that conduct rainwater from our gutters to the rain barrels en route to the pond are barely trickling yet. But the rain is steady enough to prevent outdoor work; my jobs list (in preparation for the growing season) is long and impatient to be satisfied.
The birds respond in the same way to the rain as I do. In their case, where there was garrulous busyness on the feeders an hour ago, there is now silence.

This has been a good year for finches at Cordwood and I would like to think that this is, in part, a result of the cumulative effort of six years.
In 2010, my highest count of passing goldfinches was around 70. They were infrequent garden visitors to us. Then, I looked enviously at friends' feeders where greenfinches and chaffinches hung, feasted then dropped like ripened fruit to be replaced by their peers.

Here, on brighter days, there is now a constant movement of greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches between our feeders, the rosa rugosa in the foraging border, the seeding heads of perennials and grasses in the prairie beds and fragrant garden, the seeding plants standing in the wildflower meadow and my sister's feeders.

Raggedy rosa rugosa hips stripped
Lemon balm (Melissa officianalis) seed heads attracted very confiding goldfinches close to the kitchen window recently. Turkish sage (phlomis russeliana) has been especially welcomed by finches in the Prairie Beds and the hips of the Ramanas rose (Rosa rugosa) in the Foraging border have been stripped.

Finches queue to use the feeder
All of this food is supplemented by daily fills of the bird feeders: sunflower hearts, black sunflower seed, whole peanuts and fat blocks see a constant rain of birds, policed by a vigilant robin.

When the rosa rugosa produced hips for the first time in 2015, our population of greenfinches rose. Now these birds are as abundant as goldfinches and scrap it out for pole position on the feeders.

Yesterday, the beautiful, tinsel chatter of the goldfinches in the trees above enveloped the garden. If God suffers from tinnitus (as I do) -surely it will be as lovely as this. Quite overwhelmingly lovely - and then these little nomads were away and the woodland garden suddenly silent.

2015 was exceptional for its redpolls. This year we have had a solitary individual visit fleetingly with the same for brambling. The house sparrows I am trying to encourage rarely venture from the close cut privet. And their pretty cousins, the tree sparrows call cheerily from bushes around the orchard but rarely venture out.

Chaffinches (numbers swollen by continental migrants) have taken years to master the feeders, having previously been content to be ground feeders, catching discarded seed from the wasteful birds above. Perhaps the chaffinches had to work on dexterity and balance before becoming confident as users of the feeders. Or perhaps, the swelling number of asylum-seeking pheasants escaping the shotguns on the fields next door are out-competing them? We no longer have pretty, big-eyed stock doves cleaning up beneath the feeders. And the collared dove calls distantly. But pheasants proliferate. British male chaffinches rarely stray more than a few miles from their natal site (where they were born). Presumably, some of the birds we now enjoy are the children of earlier Cordwood birds?

We look forward to another bird ringing session at the beginning of February. It will be interesting to see whether any of last years' birds have made it through and what this years' ringing tells us about changes in populations.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

opportunities on the shortest days ..

Dusk in the darkest time of the year. The shortest days, when tools are away by 4:00pm. The hens have put themselves to bed early too.
We woke this morning to a good frost and this clear evening sky - already with pin pricks of starlight - suggests we may have the same again tomorrow.
But these days, when the colour has been washed from the plants so that we live in a sepia world, present opportunities to do garden development that wouldn't be possible in the verdant months.
We completed our ground preparation of the recreated vegetable and fruit garden beds last week. This part of the garden will now rest through the winter, awaiting spring with its four year organic cycle ready to roll.
By the house, we have been developing what I am calling 'The courtyard'. Framed by our existing greenhouse, we will add a large potting shed and workshop in the New Year. A log shed will be built to screen the car parking area. A large 'dipping' pond will be constructed to hide a fall in levels. And Dave worked hard to lay a path of recycled sandstone slabs over the weekend. The surfaces will be golden gravel to match the drive and the Fragrant Garden paths. I found a black metal lamp post on the auctions and bought it for £30. When it's in place, I'm hoping it lends a Narnia-esque feel on snowy evenings.
The small birds have been hammering the bird feeders all day, emptying tubes of sunflower hearts and a tray of peanuts. Goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches. Great, blue and coal tits. A nuthatch. All feeding apparently insatiably. The ground feeding birds - pheasants, wood pigeons, stock dove and dunnock - trammel the soil as food rains down. Robins flick their tails and 'tick' in energetic competition with rivals.
A hullabaloo of cock pheasants crashes into the branches overhead as blackbirds strike the end of the day. It must be a male thing - the hen pheasants are much quieter when going to roost.
The silhouette of a buzzard, heavy winged and mewing passes over. Then fifteen wagtails 'chiswick' to one another as they bob south to their roost. Starlings have already flown into neighbours' conifers and chatter like children having a sleepover.
Darkness closes around. I wait for the tawnies to
begin to call.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

the enduring spell cast by Lawrence Hills...

Dad's shed stands at the end of what will be the fruit garden.
The days of autumn and winter both close chapters on the year and provide opportunities for new beginnings. This is one of the joys of gardening and what makes it special. Gardeners are always looking forward to the next season and planning for it.
Readers of this blog may remember that Lawrence Hills (the doyen of organic gardening and founder of Garden Organic) cast his spell over me in 1978. Always interested in gardening, my passion for growing organic fruit and vegetables was fired by the great man. Organic food seemed an almost impossible ideal all those years ago when even wholemeal flour and free range eggs were largely unavailable. I am pleased that we were able to demonstrate to ourselves over thirteen years of allotment holding that Hills' ideas were sound.
The way we were - our allotment
The hiatus in which we built our eco-home and began developing our Cordwood gardens took us away from vegetable and fruit growing for too long. And has seemed an age since I felt that unique, primal connection with the soil and growing ones own food that I am beginning to re-engage with again now.

We began to develop our vegetable and fruit gardens in the summer, digging over ground that had been used to raise perennial plants. Ours is a sandy soil and the digging was not as arduous as that of turning clay. Neither was the ground too infested with perennial weeds - we had covered the soil with black plastic as a highly-effective means of organically killing weeds.

Over the succeeding months, the four sections of the vegetable garden emerged, compost and well-rotted manure were added and wood chipped paths were created around each 1200mm (4') wide bed. There can be little as low in food miles as walking down the garden path to collect fresh vegetables. Our choice is limited at the moment, but leeks are currently featuring heavily in our cuisine. 

wildlife plays a key part in organic gardening
This month we sited dad's old garden shed at the end of what will be the fruit bed and are now within two metres of completing ground preparations for the final section of the garden. The shed will provide necessary space for storing the growing and diverse collection of garden tools I am acquiring. Summer and autumn-fruiting raspberries, four varieties of rhubarb, blueberries, redcurrant and blackcurrants are all ready in pots waiting for planting. A thornless blackberry will be purchased in the New Year.

Within, and necessary to all the fruit and fertility, the compost bins, leaf compounds and comfrey are the needs of wildlife: so ponds, insect hotels and flowering plants will be integral. They will play a vital role in the organic control of pests.

And although I now understand that Hills may have been more of a writer and thinker than a practical gardener, I still feel his hand on my shoulder gently guiding me. My hope is that in 2017 we will have created a model organic fruit and vegetable garden that will do justice to his immense legacy.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

the pond takes a huge draught of rain ..

The wake of Storm Angus has draped itself over Nottingham in curtains of rain since yesterday. Roads flooded. My rain gauge overflowed.

Perhaps I was alone in welcoming the soaking rain. I sent a text to our neighbour (who has a large, vegetable growing business next door) mischievously celebrating the deluge, knowing the reality would be different for his business. He replied that the farm was flooding and that he'd be prepared to pump the flood water that made the fields unworkable up the hill into our pond. I didn't take him up.

George's Pond fills under glowering late afternoon skies
Our pond is unusual. It is fed by rainwater we gather from the roofs of the two bungalows which travels down pipes and rain chains and into drains that feed the pond.

Our countryside has lost most of its ponds and wetlands. Those that remain are frequently polluted by nitrate-rich run-off from agricultural fields or catch pollution from roads. The consequence for animals and plants that require an aquatic habitat is obvious - their numbers are in speedy decline. Even the once common toad is no longer common.

George's Pond is our response to all this. Our site is at the top of a sandy hill and has never (as far as we know) had any pond. We have created it to help wildlife. Twenty metres in diameter, it was bentomat lined and then this matting was covered with compacted sub-soil. We finished work in January and therefore  missed some of the earlier heavy winter rains. I'm hoping that this year the pond will drink a huge draught of rain, become bloated - and prepare itself properly for the coming year.
Pond dipping

There is much that is counter-intuitive about natural ponds:
I have learnt that fluctuating pond levels in natural ponds are to be expected; indeed some highly successful ponds completely dry out in summer.
I have also learned that our aquatic wildlife has become adapted over millions of years to thrive in conditions of lower oxygen and so that ponds do not need fountains or rills to add extra oxygen.
I already knew that we wouldn't accept the many gifts of frogspawn and newts that arrived: the risk of spreading disease being too great.
I have also learned that the pond does not need to be planted because vegetation will arrive naturally over time. On this latter point I have reminded myself that although the pond may have time, I may not - so have planted a few favourites including snakes head fritillary, yellow iris and rush.

Although my movement activated camera suggests the pond is only used by wood pigeons and stock doves (and a strange creature I call 'The Claw' who landed on the camera leaving a mysterious and disturbing image) we know its impact is beyond this.

When Adam and the boys pond dipped they found lots of tiny invertebrate life.

We know that kestrels and sparrow hawks use the pond for drinking and bathing - and Jill thought she disturbed a couple of hobbies there. In Jill's case she does demand a level of proof that would test the resources of a major science university and so this latter siting can't be verified.

We do know that we attracted a passing group of crossbills on one amazing summer afternoon.

And now our pond prepares to sleep and sate itself on rain. Distant spring is anticipated eagerly.