Category Archives: Pond

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.

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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.

How to create a bog garden

Boggy areas are excellent for encouraging more wildlife into your garden. They’re particularly good for amphibians and insects. But if your garden isn’t on the edge of a stream, how can you create such an area? The answer involves rather a lot of digging.  Dr C and I like a bank holiday project, so that’s what we set out to do at the beginning of May.

You will need:

  • Somewhere to create it
  • A spade
  • A tarpaulin to put the soil on
  • Pond liner or other sturdy waterproof membrane big enough to line the pond (this is a useful calculator to help you work out how much you will need)
  • Water (preferably rain water from a water butt)
  • Perennial plants suitable for boggy or moist areas (see below for how to pick them)
  • Some logs or stones to edge the bed, hiding the pond liner

1. Pick your site

In the wild, these sorts of habitats often occur next to streams or ponds, so we chose to create ours next to our barrel pond. If your pond is level with where you want to create your bog garden, you can create a beautiful uninterrupted effect. That wasn’t an option for us, but being next to the pond will make life easier for the frogs and insects.

A pond isn’t a prerequisite for a bog garden (and if you can’t have a pond, a bog garden is a good alternative). But ponds are brilliant for all sorts of wildlife, even if they are tiny, like ours, so do consider creating one – it’s another very satisfying weekend project.

2. Mark out your bog area

You can use pegs and string to mark it out, or, like us, mark the edges with spade cuts. We went for a curved shape to match the shape of the pond.

3. Start digging

Once you’re happy with the shape and size of the bed, start digging. This is the time consuming bit. You’re aiming for a straight sided hole 50-60cm deep. Dr C did most of the hard work (as usual), but I did enough digging to ache all over for the next few days.

First we took off the turf, using it to thatch the hedgehog house. Then the serious digging starts. How hard this stage is depends on the type of ground you’re digging. In our case, it was pretty tough, as the ground under our lawn seems to be 60% building rubble. We dug up bricks, paving slabs, carpet and even a buried pipe (not connected to anything, thankfully), as well as a load of stones, and plenty of earthworms. It felt like we were on a Time Team excavation, digging up the inevitable small wall.

The bog garden hole
The bog garden hole
The soil and rubble from the hole (note the pipes and paving slabs)
The soil and rubble from the hole (note the pipes and paving slabs)

4. Line your hole

After trying to get rid of any sharp stones on the edge and bottom of the hole, we put a layer of sand on the bottom, to try to prevent anything piercing the lining. We then put the pond liner in place, pushing it into the corners of the hole, then trimming generously. We then stabbed a couple of small holes in the bottom, to allow water to drain away slowly. From what I have read, the general recommendation is a garden fork’s worth of holes per square metre. Our hole was about half that, so we went with 2 holes. The more holes you make, the faster it will drain and the less boggy, but you will need some drainage.

We added a layer of sand to the bottom of the hole to protect the pond liner
We added a layer of sand to the bottom of the hole to protect the pond liner

5. Fill in the hole

Time to undo all that hard work. First add a layer of smoothish stones, to prevent the holes becoming blocked by soil.  Then chuck all the soil back in your hole. We also added some compost, but you could also add some manure.

Filling the lined hole back in
Filling the lined hole back in

6. Water

We watered the new bog garden bed with a couple of cans of water, then let the soil level settle overnight, before topping up with soil then watering and letting it settle for a few more hours.

Leave the filled hole to settle
Leave the filled hole to settle

7. Trim and edge

Trim the pond liner more neatly, and tuck it away. We used a mix of logs and stones to edge the bog garden. These make it neater, hiding the pond liner, and provide some good hiding places for small creatures.

8. Choose your plants

I chose a mix of native plants that like boggy or moist ground. My selection includes a variety of flower shapes, colours and flowering times, to try to provide food for as many difference insects as possible. I also chose a mix of heights.  The plants I went for are:

  • Devils bit scabious
  • Water avens
  • Loosestrife
  • Marsh marigold (otherwise known as kingcup)
  • Meadowsweet
  • Marsh cinquefoil
  • An iris (a relative of the native yellow flag iris, but smaller and blue)
The edged and planted bog garden
The edged and planted bog garden

If you’re in the UK, here are a couple of nurseries that specialise in pond plants and have a good selection of native species (and do mail order):

How it’s going so far

The plants seem to be settling in well – we’ve had flowers from the meadowsweet and marsh marigold already. An insects seem to enjoy it. Next door’s kittens also seem to enjoy walking along the logs at the edge, so I hope amphibians will avoid it until the plants provide more secure cover…

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?

March Photo Challenge: wild birds

For my March Photo Challenge I visited my local park to take photos of the wildfowl. Spring was in the air, as can be seen from the fighting moorhens… The swan was also rather combative, chasing off ducks who came too close.

Moorhen
Moorhen

Swan Fighting moorhens Fighting moorhens 2015 03 26_Meadowbank birds 2_3424_edited-3 Bark

Duck tail
Mallard tail
Greylag goose legs
Greylag goose legs
Greylag goose feathers
Greylag goose feathers
Greylag goose
Greylag goose

Swan

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.

One year in the Wild South

This blog is now a year old, and this is my 100th post. I think that’s a good excuse to have a look back through the last year of posts, and pick out some of the most popular, and some of my personal favourites.

Most popular posts (highest views per month):

The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy
The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy

Lundy Island photo special – it seems I’m not the only person who thinks Lundy is a special place. I’m glad people seem to enjoy my photography.

Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
Pawprints from the mammal tunnel

Whose pawprints are these?  This post shares the results of my mammal tunnel, which allowed me to capture the pawprints of hedgehogs and mice. It also includes some footage of the nocturnal visitors to my garden.

14 05 25_2808_edited-2In which I search for otters and water shrews, and end up finding something even rarer – my account of seeing water voles in Hampshire. They’re lovely creatures…

Inquisitive seal
Inquisitive seal

Snorkelling with seals – an account of snorkelling with seals in the Isles of Scilly. Lots of photos of one of my most memorable wildlife encounters.

Deer print
Fallow(?) deer print

12 ways to find mammals – A short summary of a talk by Professor Pat Morris on how to find mammals. Not for squeamish – some of the methods involved are rather grim, but some helpful tips.

My favourite posts:

BadgerThe badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective: This post explores the case for and against the badger cull, using the principles I apply in my day job working in health research (spoiler alert: the cull is not a good idea).

The mini pond
The mini pond

How to build a mini pond: This post describes how we created a mini pond from a wine barrel. I’ve chosen this one as garden ponds (even tiny ones) are soooo good for wildlife, and ours is continuing to thrive. Hopefully this will inspire you to create one, if you don’t already have a pond.

Harvest mouse on seedheadPhoto special: British wildlife: Some of my favourite photos – hope you enjoy them as well!

Water vole
Water vole

In search of water voles: This describes my first adventure in the British Animal Challenge, and shows some of the signs to look out for with these very rare animals.

House sparrow about to fledgeHouse sparrow chicks have fledged: It’s a pleasure getting to watch nesting birds in the intimacy of their nest boxes, and these were the first chicks to fledge from our camera nest box.

I’ve learnt a lot through both having to research my posts, and from the comments people leave. I’ve really enjoyed working on the blog – thanks to everyone who has read, liked and / or commented on my posts.  I hope you will continue to keep me company on my adventures in the Wild South.

The Shrew Hunter: part 2

As my dormousing took me back to the site where I had unsuccessfully tried to see a water shrew, it was a good opportunity to try again.

I was heartened to learn that in the week since my previous visit, the water shrew had been heard by the pond by several people.

Being more organised this time, I had lunch before starting my vigil. I also came prepared with a hat to keep the sun off, so that was another improvement over last time.

I settled myself in the same spot, and kept watch. There seemed to be fewer buzzards around, which was a good sign for my chances of seeing a small mammal. There were, however, several butterfly surveyors. It was nice to have a chat with them, and learn a bit about the butterflies found in the wood. It also made quite a pleasant change to talk to people who didn’t seem to think what I was doing (standing by a pond for hours) was very eccentric. I think there must be some kind of special bond between wildlife enthusiasts, even if we are interested in different sorts of wildlife.

My old tormentor, the dragonfly, had another go at driving me crazy, but I wasn’t falling for it this time.

Sadly I still didn’t get sight of a water shrew, although I think I may have heard it. I have struggled to find a recording of water shrew noises online, and I am rubbish at interpreting the descriptions of sounds that books give, so I can’t be sure. But it definitely wasn’t a frog!

So, the quest to see a water shrew continues. I may focus on another species for a while…

Bat girl strikes again

At last some success with bats! In fact, 3 new species (and 2 old ones) in one night!

You may have noticed that I have been struggling with identifying bats. When I go out with a bat detector without expert help I detect new species, but can’t pin down which ones. And my previous bat walk with an expert found nothing but common pipistrelles. Still, I can persevere when needed, so I went on another bat walk.

This time I headed down to Winkworth Arboretum. This National Trust site is bat heaven, including woodland and lake, and is home to seven species of bats. And they weren’t all in hiding!

About 17 people gathered just before dusk, to listen to a short talk by an expert from Surrey Bat Group. Armed with detectors we then headed into the woods.

The first species to show up were common pipistrelles, feeding over our heads, silhouetted against the still light sky. Soprano pipistrelles soon joined them. As we walked over a bridge our guide was disappointed not to see Daubenton’s bats, and I worried I wouldn’t find any new species.

We then came out of the wood, to the shore of a small lake. That’s where things really got exciting. Soprano and common pipistrelles flitted over head. Skimming the water, Daubenton’s bats scooped up insects, emitting fast clicks. Then, tuning the detector lower, we picked up serotine bats at 25khz. Finally, we picked up the deep signal of Britain’s largest (and loudest) bat, the noctule. It’s just as well we can’t hear high frequncies, as noctule bats calls can be louder than a rock concert. Imagine the complaints from neighbours!

It was amazing seeing (through occasional torch flashes) so many different bats in one place, and watching their acrobatic manoeuvres. It was particularly satisfying being able to distinguish between the species, as they had quite different call patterns and frequencies.

So, five down, 11 more to go!