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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Let’s hope next year brings peace, reconciliation and restoration between people, and between humans and nature.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last winter was very mild, so maybe birds didn’t need to visit the garden so much for food
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?
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.
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.
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!
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:
Standing the pots in a tray of wool pellets, which are meant to put slugs off
Or standing them in a tray of gravel.
Sticking a plastic bag over a few of the pots until the seedlings get too big
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…
I’ve discovered a new pleasure this summer: sitting in my garden with a cold drink, watching leafcutter bees.
I’d heard of leafcutter bees before this year, but never actually seen one. Now, thanks to our new insect home, I can watch them work.
Leafcutter bees are solitary bees that use small holes to lay their eggs in. They use circles of leaf to create chambers for their larvae to develop in, and stock these chambers up with a supply of pollen before sealing them up. It looks like a lot of work, but is fascinating to watch.
I was surprised how quickly they can cut a neat circle in a leaf. Some of our plants look like they’ve been visited by the very hungry caterpillar. These holes make them unpopular with gardeners who aim for perfection, but I think it adds interest.
It’s satisfying that the insect house we installed earlier this year is giving them somewhere to nest. I’m looking forward to watching the new bees emerge next year, and make even more holes in our leaves. We might have to install some more insect houses for them!
My August Wild Garden challenge was to revive the wormery. Worms are excellent recyclers, turning dead plant material into wonderful compost and liquid fertiliser. I set up a three-tiered wormery in my garden years ago, for fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen. But it fell into neglect after the council started a food waste collection, as it was easier to put all the food waste in one place, rather than separating out acidic and fishy/meaty waste from the worm-tasty other stuff.
Having had to buy lots of compost this year, it’s struck me that it just doesn’t make sense for me to send away good worm food for the council to compost, and then pay for and transport commercial compost. It was time to get the wormery going again.
I was trepidatious about what I would find when I lifted the lid from the long-neglected wormery. But what I found was a pleasant surprise. The bottom layer had beautiful, fine textured, non-smelly compost ready to go on the garden.
My first task was to get the few remaining worms in that layer out of that compost, and into the less digested layer. I did that by leaving the lid off for a while, then, once the worms had dug down a bit to escape the light, scooping of the top bit of compost, and repeating the process until the tray was empty, the worms rehomed, and the herbs and flowers given a compost treat.
As there were few worms left, to really get the wormery producing quickly I decided to add some reinforcements. There are various companies online that will send you worms via an unsuspecting delivery driver. I bought mine along with a block of coir as bedding, some worm treats and some lime pellets, to keep the compost at a worm-friendly neutral or slightly alkaline ph.
Once the coir block had been soaked, I added it and the worms to an empty wormery tray, together with some worm treats. I will add food waste gradually, until they get into their swing.
For the tray of almost ready compost, which has the remainder of the original worms (well, their descendents), I added some lime pellets and worm treats. Once they’ve finished work in that layer they can join the newbies in the tray above.
Hopefully this time I can keep the wormery going well. This will reduce the carbon cost of transporting some of my food waste to the council composting facility, and reduce my compost and fertiliser bill. I will give it my best shot.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk