Abandoned by the bluetits

Sad news – the bluetits seem to have abandoned the nest they were building in the camera nest box. We haven’t seen a bluetit in the box for well over a week now.

Abandoned bluetit nest
Abandoned bluetit nest

It’s not the first time we’ve had bluetits build a nest, only to disappear before laying any eggs. I’m clinging onto the hope that they’re just having a break before getting down to laying eggs and incubating. But I think I may be deluding myself.

Maybe they’ve found somewhere more desirable to nest. Or maybe something untoward has happened to one of the pair. It’s a precarious life, being a bluetit, especially with the number of cats who are hanging round my garden these days.

Do you have any other theories to add to my list? Or have you seen examples where bluetits have avoided a built nest for a week or two, and then come back to use it?


What I found at my dormouse site in 2015

I have been meaning for ages to look at how dormice, woodmice and birds used different parts of my site over the course of last year. The burst of energy that spring gives me, and being relatively on top of the gardening, meant I had time on Sunday to play with presenting my data visually. I’ve made a short video to show which boxes were used by what, when.

As you can see, birds dominated the site for the first few months. But quite a few bird nests were subsequently taken over by dormice, once the birds had finished with them. By the end of the year there were an encouraging number of boxes with dormouse nests in.
What do you think of this way of showing the data? What strikes you from it?

It’ll be interesting to look at this year and last year side by side.

Installing an insect house, and feeding birds live food

This month’s wildlife garden activities have focused on insects: installing a nice new home for some of them to live in, and feeding others to robins.

Installing an insect house

The credit for the first bit needs to go to Dr C, who did all the hard work. I was given a lovely insect house for Christmas. With spring well and truly here, and lots of blossom on the fruit trees, it was about time we installed it.

Our previous insect home (a bit of log with holes drilled into it) has started rotting away. To keep this one in good condition for longer, we decided to install it off the ground, on a post.

Insect house in border
Insect house in border

It looks to me like it’s designed for solitary bees (not all bees live in hives). We’ve put it in the border next to the buddleia, which provides plenty of food for pollinators.

Close-up of insect house
Close-up of insect house

Feeding live food to the birds

The second insect related wildlife garden activity is providing live mealworms for the robins, who must have a nest with chicks nearby.
I have been feeding birds dried mealworms for years (soaked first to rehydrate them). Everything seems to love them. But even with the soaking, I have been a bit concerned they may be a bit dry for chicks whose only moisture comes from their food.

When I first started feeding dried mealworms to the birds I was quite squeamish – I didn’t want to touch them.  But I had to admit they smelt surprisingly tasty. I got used to dried mealworms, but I was a bit concerned that, confronted with squirming, squishy live insects, my squeamishness would return. Luckily that hasn’t been the case.

Live mealworms are best put out in smooth sided containers, so they can’t escape. We put up a clear plastic feeder that attaches to our window with suckers, so we can see the birds feeding. I was concerned that it might take the robins a long time to pluck up the courage to feed from it, but they’re bold birds and soon got the hang of it. They certainly seem to appreciate the mealworms, and we’re getting through the supply quickly. I haven’t spotted any other birds using it yet.

Window bird feeder with mealworms
Window bird feeder with live mealworms

Hopefully providing live food will help to give the baby robins a good chance of surviving.

Dormouse box check April 2016: cold and wet

One of the advantages of surveying for dormice is that usually the weather’s pretty good. Dormice hibernate all winter, so we don’t check the boxes during the coldest months. And dormice don’t have very waterproof fur, so we don’t tend to check when it’s chucking down with rain, to avoid them getting cold and wet if they get disturbed by us and run up a tree. So yesterday’s check was unusual in its unpleasantness.

The forecast had said that yesterday would be dry and cloudy. The first drops of light rain were falling as we gathered at the meeting point. But not enough to make me think twice about checking – usually the trees provide some cover , so you hardly notice light rain once you’re in the woods.

It’s a bit of a stroll from the meeting point to the start of the site. As we walked, the rain didn’t ease off, but still wasn’t enough to make me consider turning back. As we checked the first ten boxes, the rain got heavier, but we’d come that far already, were armed with an umbrella (for the dormice, not for us – have you tried walking through a wood with a brolly?), and it was cold enough that I was expecting any dormice we found to be torpid, so unlikely to dash up a tree at our approach. I decided that we should continue.

Now the site has 50 boxes up, surveys take a bit longer than usual. We got wetter, and colder, and more dispirited as we went. For the first 25 boxes we found nothing apart from the start of a few bird nests. About halfway through we found a common shrew, which was a brief moment of excitement, but given the weather we didn’t want to disturb it more than necessary, so we moved swiftly on.

Then we got to the few dormice nests we’d left in the boxes from last year. To check them properly we took them off the trees, and, with one person holding a brolly over the bag, someone else had to strip off coats and jumpers to have bare arms for checking the nest (dormice are excellent climbers, and clothing makes it too easy for them to run up an arm). The first nest was empty, but in good condition. The next, where we’d found a dormouse last month, look like it had been flattened by a mouse jumping up and down on it like a trampoline. Nothing in that box.

It wasn’t until we’d got to our 46th box that we finally struck gold. A torpid 16g male dormouse in one of last year’s nests. By that time the rain had almost stopped, and suddenly the whole soggy check seemed worthwhile. If you’ve ever seen any of the ‘making of’ bits at the end of BBC wildlife documentaries, you’ll know that a lot of wildlife watching is about perseverance in the face of uncomfortable conditions. I felt like the team of volunteers who carried out the check yesterday really earned seeing that dormouse. We collected the necessary data as quickly as possible, and tucked the dormouse back up in his nest.

I didn’t take any photos of the check (it wasn’t right weather or light for it), so you’ll have to make do with a photo of last month’s dormouse instead.

Torpid dormouse
Torpid dormouse

My dusters and bag have just about dried out now, and I was very glad of a hot drink and change of clothing when I got home. I woke this morning to glorious sunshine – I picked the wrong day for the box check this month! I must confess, when I heard that the box check this morning at a nearby site had found no dormice, I felt slightly better about my choice of days.


Photo special: robins

The robins have been very busy in our garden of late – I think they must have chicks nearby, but I’m not sure where they’re nesting. So last weekend I spent some time trying to get a good photo of one.

Here are my best attempts – not all perfect focus, and a little noisy in places, but I think some of them capture something of the character of these birds – bold and inquisitive.

RobinQuizzical Robin Very ruffled robin Robin and blossom Sideways robin Robin with worms Robin looking at food Ruffled robin Robin with worms Robin with worm Grumpy-looking robin

Riversearch March 2016: mysterious tracks

I chose a beautiful morning for my March Riversearch survey. The sun was shining, and, being a weekday, I had the stretch of river to myself.

It had rained heavily over the weekend, and, as I looked down from the bridge to the meadow, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to get down to the riverside. Once again, a large area had transformed from meadow to pond. But, thanks to my wellies and my intrepid stick, I was able to get through, staying dry and upright.

Flooded meadow
There’s a meadow under there somewhere!

The river level was high, and the water turbid. Some of the pipes were discharging a bit of liquid into the river, and in one place the flooded field was draining back into the river.

In the wood there were signs of spring. Wild garlic leaves were plentiful, but the flowers weren’t yet out, so their pungent aroma wasn’t noticeable.

The advantage of surveying just after the water level had somewhat receded was that any patches of earth were blank slates. Instead of the usual muddle of prints from dogs and their owners, there was a smooth, soft surface. This enabled me to spot a clear track in the woods following the river bank. What’s less clear is what made it.

Mystery pawprints
Mystery pawprints
Mystery pawprints
Mystery pawprints

Looking at my track id guide, they look to me like large rat prints. But fellow mammal group members think they’re probably mustellid, either mink (which we know are present on this stretch), or, more excitingly, polecat or polecat-ferret. What do you think?

Making the garden safe for hedgehogs

One of our top priority wildlife garden tasks for March was making it safe for hedgehogs. It’s mostly pretty safe, with no slug pellets or trailing nets, and our tiny pond has a hedgehog escape route.  But there was still one area that needed improvement.

My study is lower than the rest of the house, and there’s a small area of gravel outside it, surrounded on three sides by walls, with steep steps up to the rest of the garden. There’s a gate at the top of the steps, but the wood had rotted so the latch no longer held it shut.
We know that hedgehogs can get trapped in that area. One of Fat Cat’s rare moments of Lassie-like heroism was when she alerted us one morning that there was a hedgehog down there, unable to climb the steps. That hedgehog was fortunate, as it wasn’t stuck for too long, and was able to scurry away when carried up the steps. But we can’t rely on every hog being so lucky.

So, Dr C has repaired the latch, and we’ve installed a mini fence to hopefully stop daredevil hedgehogs falling down from the garden above. The hedgehogs are visiting our garden every night. At least I know they are safe there now.

Hedgehog-proofed area of the garden
Hedgehog-proofed area of the garden
Mini fence to stop hedgehogs falling down from the garden above
Mini fence to stop hedgehogs falling down from the garden above