Category Archives: amphibians

In which I moan about light pollution on the darkest day of the year

Today’s the shortest day of the year, so it may seem churlish to spend it complaining about light. But don’t get me wrong – it’s not sunlight I have a problem with. I can vaguely remember what it’s like, and I’m keen to renew the acquaintance. It’s light pollution that I want to talk about today.

It’s obvious how water pollution can harm wildlife – the dramatic decline of the otter in the mid 20th century is a well known example. And we’re hearing more about the health effects air pollution has for humans (and presumably wildlife are affected too). But there’s less awareness of the problem of light pollution.

Last week there was a story on the BBC website about how robins’ behaviour is affected by light pollution. A study by Southampton University found that robins that lived closer to lit paths and noisy roads were much lower down this dominance hierarchy – the birds in these territories displayed less aggressively.

Robins aren’t the only creatures affected by light pollution. Other birds, reptiles, amphibians, moths and bats are also affected negatively. But some species can adapt to make the most of it, like the common redshank, getting longer to feed because of artificial lights.

Another disadvantage of light pollution is that it stops us seeing so many stars. Where I live, in a street-lit town, I’m never going to see the Milky Way. On holidays to more remote, darker places, the stars at night take my breath away.

Light pollution is a subject that’s too close to home for me. My bedroom overlooks a recently refurbished office building that’s floodlit throughout the night, meaning that, despite the blackout lining of my curtains, my bedroom never properly gets dark.

In some places things are being done to reduce light pollution. The funding cuts for councils means many are now looking to save money (and reduce carbon emissions) by turning off street lighting in residential roads late at night. In fact, my council are introducing this to the town I live in next month. My road is a major traffic route, so the lights will stay on. But other, quieter roads, will have their lights turned off between midnight and 5am in the morning. Hopefully this will benefit at least some of the local wildlife and residents.

As for me, I’m looking forward to a trip west, where night will be dark, and, if the skies are clear, I’ll be able to see the Milky Way.

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Wild Garden: June and July

I haven’t forgotten my wildlife gardening challenge – it’s just been a busy few months with lots of work travel. So here’s a quick update on what I have done lately to make my garden even more wildlife friendly.

June – wildflower disaster

I’ve been trying to increase the number of types of native wildflowers in my garden, particularly for the shade planter and pallet planter. I sowed foxgloves, common dog violets, white clover, and wood forget-me-not in my propagator earlier in the spring. They eventually germinated, and, in June, once big enough, I moved them to the greenhouse to harden off.

Wood forget-me-not seedlings
Wood forget-me-not seedlings

Sadly the slugs came and ate them

all (apart from two little clover seedlings), so it was back to square one. I’m now just waiting for the new seedlings to get big enough to transplant.

 

I need to find a solution to the slug problem – they ate all my basil and chilli plants as well. I was hoping that eventually we’d get enough slug predators in the garden to keep the population under control. But that hasn’t happened. The hedgehogs ignore slugs, and if the slow worm is still around it’s not making a dent in slug numbers. Obviously slug pellets aren’t an option for my wildlife garden. I don’t want to use nematodes, as I don’t want to get rid of all the slugs, just stop them eating my precious plants. I don’t want to trap them, as I don’t know what to do with them once caught. I think some kind of barrier is the approach for me – I’ve bought some wool pellets (that deter rather than kill slugs) in the hope they will keep the slugs off my precious plants.

July – insect-friendly plants

July’s gardening has been about planting flowers for insects. We’ve dramtically increased the number of flowering plants in the garden, including:

  • even more lavender

    Salvia Amistad
    Salvia Amistad
  • several types of salvia, including Patio Deep Blue and Amistad
  • vivid violet scabious

    Vivid violet scabious
    Vivid violet scabious
  • red, velvety Cosmos
    Cosmos atrosanguineous
    Cosmos atrosanguineous

    atrosanguineus

  • Lady Boothby fuscia
  • Antirrhinum
  • First Lady Veronica

    Veronica First Lady
    Veronica First Lady

At the garden centre we hunted out plants with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators‘ logo on the label. This was quite straightforward for perennials and shrubs for the border – plenty to choose from. We made a shortlist, and tried to pick a mix of species with different colours, flower shapes and flowering times, to suit as wide a variety of insects as possible. It was harder with bedding plants for our pallet planter – most of the petunias, marigolds etc. on offer have been bred for their looks, rather than accessibility and attractiveness to insects. In the end we managed to find some antirrhinum with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, and then squeezed some lavender and lobellia (for its looks) in as well. If you can’t find plants with the ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo, watch which ones the insects at the garden centre head towards.

The bees at home couldn’t wait for us to get the new plants in the ground! I knew I had made a good choice when a bee landed on one of the salvias when it was still in its plastic bag in the garden.

Seeing the effect of previous Wild Garden tasks

We’re already seeing the benefit of some of our earlier Wild Garden activities – the solitary bee house seems to have lots of residents, which is very satisfying. If you build it (or install it), they will come.

Bee house with sealed-up cells
Bee house with sealed-up cells

And the bog garden plants are growing nicely, with the loosestrife looking good and attracting insects at the moment.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden
Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Frogbert and Frogmilla are regularly spotted keeping cool in the pond (when the coast is clear of next door’s kittens). And the buddleia has exploded with flowers, attracting butterflies. The garden is full of life right now.

Taking stock of my wildlife garden

I’m not the world’s best or keenest gardener. My attempts at vegetable growing this year have largely failed (thwarted once again by slugs and lack of time). And weeds have rather taken over the border. So the bit of encouragement that came my via Surrey Wildlife Trust‘s Wildlife Garden Awards was most welcome.

Surrey Wildlife Trust are trying to encourage more people to provide shelter, food and drink for our wild neighbours in their gardens. Gardens have the potential to become havens for wildlife, if they’re managed the right way, no matter how small they are. So the Trust have set up a Wildlife Garden Award scheme for gardeners in Surrey.

Having previously lived in a flat without a garden, I was excited by the opportunities having a (tiny) garden offered when we moved here. For the first year or two we did quite a lot of work to try to make our garden more wildlife friendly. But having made those changes, and not had any major wildlife garden improvement projects on the go for a while, I’d lost a bit of perspective on how we were doing. So filling in the self-assessment form was a revelation – we’re not doing badly at all! I don’t find out the results until the end of September / beginning of October, but I was pleased by the number of boxes I was able to tick:

Food features:

  • Bird feeding station
    Bird feeding station

    Bird feeding station

  • Nectar rich flowers
  • Fruit trees or berry bearing shrubs
  • Perennials left un-cut until spring
  • Vegetable patch / container
  • Herb garden

Shelter features:

  • Dead wood / log pile

    Finished hedgehog box in situ
    Finished hedgehog box in situ
  • Climbing plants
  • Some lawn left to grow long
  • Mini wild flower meadow
  • Hedgehog and bird boxes
  • Insect hotel

Water features:

The mini pond
The mini pond
  • Wildlife pond – no fish!
  • Bird bath

Management features:

  • No use of pesticide & slug pellets
  • Avoid chemical weed killers
  • Compost heap & wormery
  • Rain butts
  • Use peat free compost

Some of the boxes I wasn’t able to tick were ones that I’d never be able to tick for my garden – it’s not near a stream or on boggy ground, and is too small for a native hedge. But being reminded that I am doing a reasonable job is reassuring, and it’s inspiring me to think about what else I could do to make my garden even more wildlife friendly. Longer term, I’d love to turn our flat roof into a green roof, although that will take a bit of planning and expense.

I guess it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to me, given the number of wild visitors our garden attracts (mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and birds). But we all need a bit of encouragement every now and then. So thanks, Surrey Wildlife Trust, for providing it.

If you’d like a bit of inspiration for how to make your garden or balcony super attractive to wildlife, visit:

Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife in a heatwave)

Firstly, an apology for my non-UK readers: this is a post about the weather, specifically, me moaning because it's a temperature that for many of you is perfectly normal. I can't help it, I'm English.

It’s too darn hot. I commute to London four days a week. It’s really not been fun lately – our train isn’t air conditioned, and there seems to be no air at all coming in through the windows. Everyone is sweaty – clothes cling, and everybody politely ignores the visible damp patches on shirts, as we’re all in the same position. But I get off lightly – I don’t have to enter the depths of hell that is the underground network at this time of year, nor wedge myself into a mobile greenhouse (otherwise known as a bus).

And night is little better. Yesterday evening it was 27 degrees C when I wanted to go to bed. I’m not made for extremes of heat or cold – give me 21 degrees C and sunshine, and I’m happy. Anything too far either side of that and I’m miserable.

But I am very lucky – I can carry a bottle of water with me, and my food supply is as easily accessible as ever. Spare a thought  for our wildlife, who aren’t as lucky. Here’s some easy things you can do to help your wild neighbours during a heatwave:

  • Keep a bird bath topped up with clean water
  • Don’t forget about creatures who can’t fly – if you don’t have an accessible pond with shallow sloping sides, put out a dish of fresh water on the ground each day and night
  • If you don’t have a pond, why not create one – it’s one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden. It needn’t be big – our mini pond gets used by lots of wildlife
  • Don’t forget to feed the birds and hedgehogs – it can be particularly hard for hedgehogs and blackbirds to find food when it’s been hot and dry for a long while, so leave out some cat food or mealworms for them
  • Water your garden plants when it’s cool (preferably with water from a water butt) to keep your garden a green oasis for wildlife
  • Build a log pile – this will provide damp shady places for insects, amphibians and mammals to keep cool during the day
  • Plant a tree or two in your garden to create some shade, if you don’t have some already (although a heatwave isn’t a great time to start planting trees – you might want to wait until the autumn / winter for this one)

You can find loads of useful wildlife gardening advice and practical instructions from the RSPB Make a Home for Wildlife site.

Do you have any other tips for helping wildlife through a heatwave?

May Photography Challenge: garden

The theme for May’s photography challenge was the garden. I love plants at this time of year – everything is fresh and verdant, bursting with life. So I spent a happy hour pottering about the garden, trying to capture some of the textures and colours of May.

It took me a while to get round to looking at the photos I shot, and when I did I was disappointed with the results. A lot of them are unusable as the focus was off, or the composition too messy. I must remember to check the images in the screen as I go along, rather than waiting til I upload them on a computer. Here’s the best of the (poor) bunch.

sage
Sage

wildflowers

Buddleia reaching to the sky
Buddleia reaching to the sky
Dandelion clock (plenty of them in my garden!)
Dandelion clock (plenty of them in my garden!)
Fresh ivy leaves
Fresh ivy leaves
wisteria
wisteria

British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015

March seems to have flown by. My focus for the British Animal Challenge in March was reptiles and amphibians. I did manage one reptile spotting walk, but didn’t see any reptiles. (I think I picked too warm a day, and should have gone out earlier in the morning.)

Still, I did at least cross one new species off my list in March: we found a common shrew in one of the dormouse boxes we were cleaning out. I’ve seen a few pygmy shrews in dormice boxes before, but not a common one. They don’t nest in the boxes, so are either using them for a quick nap (shrews need to do everything quickly, as they have to eat pretty much constantly), or helping us get rid of some of the insects that like to take up residence in the boxes.

I’ve definitely seen dead common shrews before (victims of my previous cat), but can’t remember seeing one alive, so didn’t cross it off my list before. I finally have a confirmed sighting.

While there was only one new species ticked off my list in March, I did see some other animals. I’ve seen:

  • Hedgehogs (now coming every evening to my garden) – even witnessed some hedgehog fights
  • Hares
  • Deer – not sure which sort, as we whizzed past on the train
  • Rabbits

My calendar for April looks pretty packed. It includes a dormouse box check, so I may get lucky and see a yellow-necked mouse. I’ve also got another trip to Cornwall planned, to go sailing in my dinghy for the first time – I’d love to see some cetaceans on that (although I’m not pinning my hopes on it). I’ll also try to look out for reptiles and amphibians (there are some good ponds near where I’ll be staying in Cornwall).

British Animal Challenge: February 2015 update

I have to admit that I have spent most of February indoors, so far. So no new animals to tick off my list this year. But I haven’t been idle – I’ve been plotting the rest of the year.

My focus for March will be amphibians and reptiles. I’m not planning any trips away from home, so will search for those that can be seen in Surrey. Luckily that’s most of the British species.

Early spring is a good time to look for amphibians, as their focus is on mating. And reptiles have to spend more time basking in the open, so will hopefully be easier to see than later in the year.

Surrey has some fine reptile habitat, with a mix of woodland and heaths. I’m more familiar with the woods, so this is a good excuse to explore beyond my usual territory.

British Animal Challenge: look back at 2014

At the start of 2014 I began a huge challenge: trying to see every different type of British animal in the wild. The list has changed a little bit over the year, but here’s the latest version. It includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In all, there are 107 species.

I’d seen a reasonable number before I started the challenge, but many of the ones remaining are, for one reason or another, tricky. Some are very rare, some restricted to small parts of the UK (including tiny islands), and others are hard to see because they’re nocturnal, or live at sea.

So, what progress have I made this year? I’ve visited different corners of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall and Surrey on my quest, and spent quite a few hours trying to see some of our elusive animals.

New species seen:

And species I haven’t seen, despite several attempts:

In all, I’ve seen 45 species, and still have 62 to go. It’s going to be a busy year next year!

Jersey toad

My British Animal Challenge list has just got a little longer, as last week it was announced that the toads found on Jersey are actually a separate species to those found in mainland Britain.

While it means I am a little further from completing my challenge, I am not too disappointed, as it’s an extra excuse to visit Jersey. I have never been to the Channel Islands before, but to complete my challenge I will need to visit Jersey and Guernsey to see a few species not found elsewhere, including:

  • Millet’s shrew
  • Greater white-toothed shrew
  • Guernsey vole
  • Green lizard
  • Agile frog
  • and now, the Jersey toad

Now I just need to find the time for a trip to the Channel Islands…

British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.