Category Archives: Garden

Hedgehog romance

How do hedgehogs mate? Carefully, as the old joke goes. Last night I didn’t quite get to witness mating, but did get to watch hedgehog courtship at close quarters.

Just before I went to bed last night, I went down to the patio door to see if there were any hedgehogs about. It was still quite light, so I wasn’t expecting one, but there, snuffling round just the other side of the door, was a small hedgehog (trying to hoover up any mealworms Reproachful Robin had dropped from the feeder attached to the door).

Please to see one so close (separated only by the doubleglazing), I glanced round the garden and saw another, larger hedgehog approaching. He clearly was not after the mealworms.

What ensued was a protracted courtship. He circled her, trying to get her, occasionally rubbing the side of his snout against the ground (do they have scent glands there?). She, equally determined, snorted regularly and turned round on the spot to make sure he never got behind her.

Occasionally he would change direction, and try another angle of approach. When she moved away from the door, so her back was no longer protected by it, I thought she might be softening towards him. But the circuits continued. From time to time she would seem to get annoyed with him, and charge him. But then the dance continued.

It was fantastic seeing such an intimate moment at such close quarters. But after 45 minutes of this, tiredness won and I headed up to bed. So I’ve no idea how it ended. Let’s hope we have little hoglets visiting the garden soon!

 

Bluetit chicks growing

The chicks are a week old now, and the change in them has been remarkable. Counting them is still a bit of a challenge, as there always seems to be one chick or another buried under a pile of siblings, but occasionally we do get a glimpse of all eight at once.

They’re a lot noisier now than when they first hatched, and while they still look a little bit like monsters, their feathers are beginning to grow, and they don’t like quite so much like they’ll snap whenever they fling their heads back for food.

The parents have both been kept busy catching insects to feed to the demanding crowd, and disposing of droppings. Sometimes when a chick eats a particularly large insect you can see the bulge move down its throat as it swallows.

In the last day or so one or two of the chicks have looked like they were trying to climb out of the bowl of the nest, and almost making it. They’re getting a lot stronger and their stubby wings are growing.

They’re behind most of the nests in the dormouse site I monitor – the chicks I saw there on Saturday looked like mini-bluetits, complete with proper feathers, almost ready to fledge.

This time next week the chicks may have fledged. They’ve got quite a lot of developing to do before then, but it’s remarkable how quickly they’ve grown already. Of course, life is precarious for chicks, so I’m not counting my bluetits before they fledge. But they’ve done well to make it this far.

Bluetits hatching

My weekend was made when I turned on the TV and saw the bluetits in our camera nest box were hatching.

The newly hatched chicks look so vulnerable, it’s amazing any ever survive to fledge. Their tiny necks look much to weak to support their heads, yet when a parent bird enters with an insect, the chicks manage to fling their heads back and open their beaks.

At first the chicks were silent, floppy little things. It’s hard to count how many there are as it’s not obvious what bits belong to which chick. By the end of Sunday, our best guess was that five chicks had hatched, and three eggs remained.

It’s wonderful to see chicks in the camera nest box. Last year a pair of bluetits started building a nest in it, but gave up. When we put the camera back in this February, we couldn’t remember if we had cleaned the box out last autumn, or if the nesting material in there was last year’s. It took a while to be sure that bluetits were adding to what was in there.

A few years ago we had two successful house sparrow broods, but nesting materials blocked the camera, so we couldn’t see what was going on.

The only previous time bluetits have hatched in the box, none of them survived to fledge, as one of the adults went missing, and the lone parent wasn’t able to keep up the supply of 100 caterpillars a day that each chick needs. I hope this year’s brood will be more successful.

It’s a privilege to be able to witness such a special moment.

Horay for hedgehogs

I’m not the only one emerging from hibernation at the moment. A couple of days ago we finally saw our first hedgehog of the year. It’s been a long time coming, as we’ve been finding plenty of ‘signs’ of hedgehogs for a few weeks. 

We’ve been leaving out food for them, but whereas in previous years we could leave the bowl in the open, I think we need to build a hedgehog feeding station to keep out the neighbours’ kittens this year. 

It’s so nice to see the hedgehogs again. I hope the dormice will follow suit for our April box check. 

How to make an insulated bird bath

Birds need water to drink all year round. Our mini pond and bird bath do the trick most of the year, but during really cold spells they can get frozen solid, leaving the birdies thirsty. To tackle this, I decided to raid the garage for bits and pieces to make an insulated watering hole for birds.

What I used

Materials needed for the insulated bird bath
Materials needed for the insulated bird bath

 

Tools needed to make insulated bird bath: glue gun, scissors, knife
Tools needed to make insulated bird bath
  • A polystyrene box (we used to use it to keep milk cool)
  • A strong black bin bag
  • A glue gun and sticky tape
  • A cold-proof bowl

How I made it

  1. I cut a hole in the lid of the polystyrene box, so the birds can get at the water without the water lising too much heat. I had forgotten how much mess cutting polystyrene makes – I was covered in white flecks which static made difficult to get rid of.
  2. Polystyrene isn’t waterproof or easy to wipe clean, so I covered the outside of the box and lid with black plastic from an opened out, heavy duty bin bag (making sure to leave the hole free). In addition to waterproofing and making the box easier to clean, the black colour will hopefully mean it warms up quicker when there is a bit of sunshine. I used a glue gun to attach the plastic to the polystyrene (until the glue ran out and I had to resort to tape).

    Covering the polystyrene box and lid with black plastic
    Covering the polystyrene box and lid with black plastic
  3. I put the cold-proof bowl in the box, to test how it fitted. I wanted it to come right up to the lid, so the birds could easily reach the water. I ended up having to create a small hollow in the bottom of the box so that lid could fit on when the bowl was in place. This made even more mess, turning me into a snowman. I then filled the gap round the edge of the bowl and the box with more polystyrene.
    Creating a nest for the bowl
    Creating a nest for the bowl

    Insulated bird bath with bowl in situ
    Insulated bird bath with bowl in situ
  4. I put the box in place (somewhere where it’ll get the sun, not too close to where cats could hide) and filled the bowl with water.

    The insulated bird bath in place
    The insulated bird bath in place

Did it work?

Well, on frosty mornings when the birdbath was frozen solid, and there were inches of ice on the pond, there was only a sliver of ice on the insulated bird bath that could be easily broken or removed.

The insulated bird bath on a frosty morning
The insulated bird bath on a frosty morning
A thin layer of ice had formed over night, but this was easily broken, unlike the inches of ice in the pond
A thin layer of ice had formed over night, but this was easily broken, unlike the inches of ice in the pond

I set up my trail camera for a couple of days to see if anything used it. While a song thrush and wren came tantalisingly close, the only animals that I actually saw drinking from it were cats. But lots of cats, lots of times. I have successfully created an insulated cat bowl. Not quite what I was aiming for, but maybe the birds will get used to it.

Next door's cat drinking from the insulated bird bath
Next door’s cat drinking from the insulated bird bath

Modifications

One essential modification is to secure the lid in some way, to stop it being blown off. The stone I used wasn’t up to high winds, so I think tying it on with string would be better.

Looking back at 2016

I’m looking forward to shaking the dust of 2016 from my sandals. But it hasn’t all been bad. Here are my highlights and lowlights from the year.

Highlights

I find January pretty tough – I’m not a fan of cold, and the lack of light gets me down. So a fun day out at the British Wildlife Centre with my fellow members of Surrey Dormouse Group was a welcome relief.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I love spring, and seeing the bluetits start to build a nest in my camera nest box meant the return home each day was exciting – what’s happened today?!

My Wild Garden 2016 challenge kept me busy over the year, as each month I tried to make my garden better for wildlife. For the first time this year I fed live mealworms to the birds – it was great seeing how well this went down with them, and something I’ll do again in 2017. We also installed an insect house, and it was great watching the bees move in. Perhaps my favourite Wild Garden activity of the year was creating the Bog Garden – lots of digging involved, but worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it does this year, now the plants have had a chance to bed in and grow.

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

Bee on loosestrife in the bog garden

As always, it’s a delight to watch hedgehogs in the garden, and even more exciting (and entertaining) to watch their courtship.

Dr C gave me a great new toy – a macro lens, and I’ve enjoyed experimenting with that over the year. The Macrophotography course I did with Adrian Davies was particularly helpful. Some of the images I took that day even featured in my 2017 calendar!

Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Butterfly on bramble flower

It’s been a good year for my dormouse site. In one box check we had 9 dormice (including 7 youngsters crammed into one box!), and we’ve now had dormouse activity in every part of the site, which is great news.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

And it’s great that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has now come into force. On a smaller scale, it’s lovely to hear that the beavers on the River Otter are breeding.

Lowlights

Work has been very tough this year (particularly in the first half of the year), so this blog has taken a bit of a back seat for a while. It’s frustrating, as I’ve loads of things I wanted to tell you about, and lots of photos and videos that need editing.

It’s not been a great year for my garden birds – the Big Garden Birdwatch in January, when we saw only one bird. The bluetits that started to build their nest in the camera nest box soon abandoned it. And when I looked at the data over the year from June 2015 to May 2016, it confirmed that we’ve had far fewer birds than normal.

The referendum result was staggering, and, to me, hugely disappointing. It’s still not clear how it will affect many things, including our laws for protecting wildlife and the environment. The whole campaign was a bit of a disaster – even those campaigning for remain failed to make a case on the positive things that EU membership has brought this country, including cleaner rivers, beaches and air, and protection for species like dormice. One thing is clear: we need make sure whatever happens next does not damage this protection.

2016 has seen a lot of beloved public figures die. Among them, perhaps the most famous tiger in the world: Machli, the lady of the lake. I was lucky enough to see her in the wild, back in 2006. She has had a long life for a tiger, and brought up many youngsters that will continue her legacy. But it’s still sad to think she is no longer ruling the temples and lakes of Ranthambore.

Bengal tiger
Machli

Let’s hope next year brings peace, reconciliation and restoration between people, and between humans and nature.

And another 10 Christmas present ideas for wildlife lovers

It’s the first of December – advent calendar doors are being opened around the world. Tonight is Gala Night in the town I live in, where all the local shops put on a bit of an extravaganza for late night Christmas shopping and general jollity. If you’re in need of some inspiration for what to get the wildlife lover in your life, you might want to check out my previous posts on the subject:

and some new ideas below.

  1. Window feeder for birds: these trans
    Window bird feeder with mealworms
    Window bird feeder with live mealworms

    parent bird feeders stick to your window, giving good views of whatever’s taking the food. We’ve had one for years, but never really used it until this year, when we started feeding live meal worms during spring. The robins loved it, and we got plenty of good views from the comfort of our own dining room. You can get them from various places, including the RSPB. If the person you’re shopping for isn’t too squeamish, you could even get them some mealworms to go in it. They’re ugly, but just about every bird and mammal that visits our garden loves them.

  2. Wildlife-related clothing: this one’s probably found its way near to the top of the list today as it’s so darned cold. I’ve got my eye on a badger jumper to keep the chill away. PTES have some good designs, as do Sussex Wildlife Trust.

    Close-up of insect house
    Close-up of insect house
  3. Solitary bee house: bees of all sorts have had a tough time over the last few decades, but they’re essential pollinators, so we need to help them out. We were given one last Christmas and have really enjoyed seeing the leafcutter bees make use of it. The charity BugLife have a selection. As do NHBS.
  4. A wildlife calendar: I’m a bit biased, as I sell calendars of my wildlife photography to raise money for charity, but I think calendars make great presents (as long as the person you’re buying for doesn’t have too many already). Mine have pretty much sold out this year, but there’s plenty of thers out there. Wildlife Photographer of the Year always produce great ones. The RSPB has a good choice as do WWF and the Wildlife Trusts calendar looks super.
  5. A good thermos: I’ve come to hot drinks quite late in life – I still don’t like coffee or normal tea. But having a flask of steaming hot drink to warm you up on a cold walk or wildlife survey (or football match) can really make a difference. Some are better than others – look at the details on how long it will keep a drink warm for before you buy.
  6. Membership of a wildlife organisation: I’m a member of many wildlife organisations, from huge international charities to local species-specific groups. There are loads out there, and many offer gift memberships. The benefits of membership will vary between organisations, but might include a regular newsletter or magazine (some of these are really good), access to events for members, and opportunities to get into the wild to help nature. And of course, the membership fee supports the work the organisation does. Some of the bigger ones offer special memberships for children as well – I remember being given membership of the children’s wing of Devon Wildlife Trust when I was growing up, and enjoying the activities that were part of that. If the person you’re buying for is particularly keen on a specific species or type of wildlife, see if there’s a group that matches. (Some that spring to mind that offer gift memberships include the Barn Owl Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF,  the Mammal Society, the National Trust, RSPB)
  7. Dormouse Christmas tree decorations
    Dormouse Christmas tree decorations

    Something beautiful and handmade: One of the members of the dormouse group I’m part of makes fantastic wildlife-related ornaments, jewelry and decorations. I fell in love with her dormouse Christmas tree decorations, but she does wonderful birds, butterflies and other mammals as well.

  8. Books: Books are always on my list. Check out what natural history books your local bookshop has to offer. I quite fancy ‘That Natural Navigator’ by Tristan Gooley, as I like the thought of being able to navigate without a smart phone or GPS.
  9. A sea safari: In Britain nowhere is that far from the sea, which holds some of our most exciting wildlife. A holiday is not complete for me if it doesn’t include a boat trip, and you can’t beat the thrill of seeing dolphins race and play, or the leisurely trawling of a basking shark. Look out for your local operator, but make sure they’re members of the WISE scheme (which means they’re accredited to run their trips in a way that’s safe for wildlife). Dr C still hasn’t booked me on a whale watching cruise of the Bay of Biscay yet (see 2014’s post), but maybe I can persuade him to let me go for a day trip at least.
  10. Wildlife Gardening Information Pack: This was part of my prize for winning the small private garden category of the 2015 Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards, and I’ve found it packed full of ideas – highly recommended!

Bird Nerd part 15: 2015-2016 data – catastrophe

If you have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I keep records of the birds I see in my garden. I have finally got round to entering and analysing the data from June 2015 to May 2016. The results make gloomy reading.

I have data from 36 observation days, spread across the year. On average, I saw eight individual birds from 4.5 species per day. This is the lowest average number of birds and species in the six years I have been collecting data, by quite some way. It’s a fall by more than half on the previous year’s average number of birds.

Average number of individual birds and species, 2010-2016
Average number of individual birds and species, 2010-2016

This averages hide a range from no birds at all (one day in February) to 19 birds from 9 species in June. In total, I saw birds from 16 different species.

As the graph shows, I started off with high numbers, which declined steeply in the first couple of months (as is fairly usual for the time of year). But the numbers never really picked up again, and December, which is usually the busiest month, saw very few birds visiting the garden.

Total number of individual birds and species, 2016
Total number of individual birds and species, 2016

How did different species get on?

The most regular visitor to the garden was woodpigeon, being recorded on 81% of observation days, followed by the reliable robin, on 78% of observation days. House sparrows were on seen on 36% of observation days, but turned up in numbers, giving a mean average of 1.8 individuals per observation day.

As the next chart shows, it was a bad year for most of the common species. The house sparrow population seems to have dropped dramatically from last year. I saw fewer starlings, collared doves and blackbirds than any previous year. Numbers of woodpigeons, magpies, dunnocks and jackdaws also seemed to be down on the previous year. Two species had their best ever year in our garden: robins and feral pigeons.

Average number of birds from common species, 2010-2016
Average number of birds from common species, 2010-2016

How does this fit with the national picture?

According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch survey (which my data feeds into), There were low average numbers during the second half 2015. But they report that many of the seed-eating and insectivorous species were seen in very high numbers toward the end of the year,  something my data doesn’t reflect. There were low winter migrant numbers, which could have been driven by relatively mild winter.

Looking at the individual species, the latter half of 2015 does seem to have been bad for house sparrows, collared doves, blackbirds and starlings nationally.

What caused this decline?

I don’t really know what caused the decline. I haven’t changed the food, water or shelter features in the garden for birds. A couple of possible factors spring to mind.

  1. Last winter was very mild, so maybe birds didn’t need to visit the garden so much for food
  2. Cats and kittens: our garden is now used by next door’s cat – he probably arrived during this period. And our backdoor neighbours have got a couple of naughty kittens. So perhaps these are scaring the birds away.

And of course there’s the bigger picture that’s affecting birds nationally: Jazz, Roja and Kiki are not responsible for low numbers of birds nationally. Climate change, habitat loss and farming intensification are part of the longer-term story.

What to do?

I can’t change the weather, so I guess if I want to see more birds, I may need to discourage the neighbourhood cats. I am not sure how best to achieve this, without making the garden unappealing to Fat Cat as well, which would be a shame (she’s not a hunter – she once got scared out of the garden by a baby bluetit). Maybe we could use some kind of cat repelling sound device that we could turn off when Fat Cat is taking her constitutional stroll.

What do you think?

  • Have you noticed any decline in the number of birds visiting your garden?
  • Do you have any alternative hypotheses for why the birds have disappeared?
  • Do you have any suggestions on how I can discourage the neighbours’ cats while not spoiling Fat Cat’s chance for fresh air and grass?

Belated nest discovery 

The mild weather of October has given way to a chilly November. Time to get ready for winter. So Dr C got the ladder out to take the camera out of the birdbox, which is hidden behind a tangle of clematis by our front door.

This year was disappointing for birdbox activity. We had a pair of bluetits who started building a nest, but they abandoned it before laying eggs.

So it was a little galling when he discovered a birds nest on top of the nest box. It looks like birds did nest this year, on rather than in the bird box. And all this time, it was easily watchable from our sitting room, if only we had known to look.

Bird nest on top of the camera nest box
Bird nest on top of the camera nest box

I am not sure what sort of birds nested there – it looks quite different from the many bluetit and wren nests I have seen, but they have usually been in a box, rather than freestanding. Any ideas? My best guess would be robins, given how frequently I saw them in the back garden this spring.

I’ve no idea what happened in this nest. Was it abandoned before any eggs were laid, like the one in the box? Did they lay eggs? Did the chicks fledge. I will never know. I would like to think they did, and that perhaps they will be back next year. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for them!

Do you have any ideas about what made the nest?

#WildGarden2016: Persevering with wildflowers

One of my WildGarden aims for this year was to increase the numbers of wildflower species in the garden. I set up a new planter in a shady spot, and planned out a selection of wildflowers that will attract insects over a large portion of the year. I got snowdrops in the green, and primroses as plug plants, as well as seeds for other species.

I’ve not had great success with the seeds – they took ages to germinate, and, once they had, the slugs eat them all while they were hardening off in the greenhouse. My second batch (including foxgloves, white clover and wood forget-me-not) are now in the greenhouse, and I am trying a couple of approaches to keeping the slugs away:

  1. Standing the pots in a tray of wool pellets, which are meant to put slugs off
  2. Or standing them in a tray of gravel.
  3. Sticking a plastic bag over a few of the pots until the seedlings get too big
Wildflower seedlings
Wildflower seedlings

We’ll see if any of these approaches works.

Update: last night I caught a snail in one of the pots in the tray of gravel…