With spring migration easing up, the second half of May is a great time for enjoying some of the spectacular insects taking to the wing. The problem this year has been the lack of sunshine and a cold north-easterly airflow, but as I finished weeding the vegetable beds in the garden yesterday, I realised that not only did I deserve a wildlife hit as a reward, but temperatures were soaring. It was time to head down to the river and hopefully take in some dragonfly action.
Winged jewelsI live just half a mile or so from the beautiful River Ouse, so within 10 minutes, I was making my way among the snowdrifts of cow parsley lining the banks watching out for the explosion of colour that is my local speciality: the scarce chaser. After a good half a mile walk, I’d clocked up 11 of these bright orange beauties in the lush waterside vegetation soaking up the sun’s rays. They were all freshly emerged, so the males have yet to turn their powder blue colour. I think they are much smarter like this. I even watched one making its first ever flight, rising up uncertainly form the reeds and touching down with some relief high in a hawthorn. Its wings were still a little soft and its body not quite fully hard.
Hairy dragonfly by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com). You have to get really close to see the hairs...
Banded demoiselles were out in force, with the males’ black striped wings giving them an almost tropical look and common blue damselflies were just that – common... and blue!There was time for the second local speciality: a hairy hawker with a male patrolling up and down a sheltered, and particularly warm, navigation channel.
With a new species of sawfly for my list – these colourful insects love the flowerheads of cow parsley and hogweed – and all those dragonflies in the bag, I was very pleased with my haul. Definitely the right decision to go and mess about down by the river for an hour. With views of a male cuckoo and a Cetti’s warbler, plus 4 red kites overhead, it was one of the trips that would look great listed out in my diary.
Things were about to get even better though. I lifted my binoculars to scan over the gravel pits to the west and noticed a good number of swifts feeding high in the sky. Then I started to notice “giant swifts” snatching up dragonflies in their talons as they flew – hobbies!
Hobbies may gather in numbers over wetlands and meadows in May as insects emerge in abundance (Ben Andrew rspb-images.com)
First scan revealed four birds – a great count. The second was 11 and then after three or four more scans of the skies, I’d seen 23 hobbies all in the air together. What a sight to see on my doorstep. It was hard to leave them, but it started to cloud over and they began to disperse as their food supply presumably dwindled. A friend of mine was watching 61 hobbies at RSPB Lakenheath Fen at the same time so it was a great day for these smart falcons to be feeding up before splitting up into pairs and heading off to breed.
Hobbies grab dragonflies in their talons and strip off the wings before tucking in to the tasty treat (Richard Allen rspb-images,com)
Discover the wildlife on your doorstepIt’s the perfect time of year, and weather, for getting out and seeing what you can find close to home. If you’d like some more inspiration about finding wildlife on your patch, please check out my latest book, Wildlife on Your Doorstep, which is based on my wildlife watching adventures within 5 miles of my home. It’s available from the RSPB shop and I’ll be sharing extracts from it on the blog over the summer to offer more ideas for making the most of the long days ahead. You'll be amazed how much you can find without having to travel far!
A sunset water-hose session in my garden is usually a very effective rain dance. If I venture out in the evening and spend ages watering all the plants… well, then you can be sure you’ll wake up to a decent amount of rain. And that’s what happened last weekend. Our garden desperately needed it, I suppose – though I’m less of a fan, as I had hopes of firing up the barbecue.
It’s been interesting watching the effects of the ensuing deluge on the flora and fauna out there, after such a long dry spell. The earthworms start poking their heads out - often a fatal move as small beaks eagerly snatch them up.
Plants are suddenly shooting up, but on the other hand the slugs are out in force - I had to remove 9 of the blighters (plus one snail) from what was left of a newly transplanted pepper seedling. Anything in a pot has since been brought into our enclosed porch, and the slugs catapulted into the shrubbery around the little pond, where hopefully our frogs will make short work of them.
Out you come, my little rain-loving amphibious friends! I’ve a smorgasbord of slugs waiting for you… Photo: RSPB
I remain a bit worried about my young peas, and am doing nightly patrols to check on them and add a few used coffee grounds around each plant. So far, so good. Everything - from the lawn to our thicket of teasels - has put on a huge growth spurt in just the past few days, enjoying this sudden bounty from the heavens.
But while all the slimy things throw a happy party, I feel sorry for our birds. Our feeders are dripping with soggy peanuts and dissolving suet-balls, and the table looks more like a revolting porridge than gourmet granola. I’ve only seen large birds visiting the feeders - collared doves and woodpigeons, magpies and jackdaws - and even they look a bit unhappy. Our beloved swifts vanish during the day, returning noisily after 5pm to scream through the falling rain, and in and out of my eaves. I don’t see many insects around in this weather – so there’ll be a few little beaks out there going hungry.
It’s time to get on the case and look after my feathered friends. They’ve got families to feed too, whatever the weather. I need to waterproof their banquet.
So, here are a few pointers to keep feeding effectively throughout wet spells.
One of our feeders gets a good soaking, and things are strangely quiet.
Whole-grain mixes will perform better in wet weather, as the outer casings of seeds offer some protection from water; but avoid things like crushed nuts, flakes or dried mealworms which will rapidly collapse into a soggy mess – and be very unpleasant to clean up! My feeder table is open-topped but made of mesh for drainage; some models have a roof, but you should still check for drainage. If in doubt, use a column feeder during wet weather, rather than the table.
Watching the rain slanting into a column of costly fresh peanuts and trickle out of the bottom is not exactly a heartwarming experience. Peanut feeders are quite densely packed, so tend to go mouldy quickly in wet weather. The trick is not to leave them in there too long. If you’re getting a lot of wastage, fill them just an inch or two from the base. You could also re-use any surviving clean, dry peanuts from the core of the feeder. Oh, and never put out whole, loose peanuts during nesting season – they can choke young birds.
My young daughter has an annoying tendency to take a couple of bites from an apple and then discard it on a table somewhere. No matter - her loss is the birds’ gain. Apples are relatively waterproof, so I toss them onto the lawn for the blackbirds to peck at. For ground-shy species, try skewering them onto a stout twig.
Cakes and pellets, filled coconuts and fat-balls are the most popular treats in my garden. They’re all suet-based, but there are many suet formulas out there, and some are more weatherproof than others. Those with a high cereal content may last better in the heat but tend to dissolve in heavy rain, making a fairly revolting fatty mess on the ground underneath. And though the birds love to excavate mealworms out of suet, after a downpour few things turn my stomach like a dissolving mushy mealworm. Go for firm, good-quality pellets, or make your own suet cake by mixing one part melted lard or suet with two parts whatever your birds love best (and is relatively waterproof).
A waterproof treat for soggy birds! Photo: Nigel Blake (rspb-images.com)
Finch favourites, nyjer seeds are hard and oil rich, so have a pretty good shelf-life in all weathers. All the same, nyjer feeders should be well enclosed, and you should shake it a bit each time you top up your feeders, to prevent clogging around the feeding-holes. It should then survive wet weather, but do still change your nyjer seed every 3-4 weeks - it tends to lose its appeal to birds after that time.
Raisins - rainy day win!
I found a rather dried-out, sorry-looking packet of organic raisins in my baking cupboard and put them out on the feeder table. Surprisingly, they seem to be the food that most benefits from a good soaking. The rain plumps them out a bit, and the woodpigeons are all over them. Sweet treats for them, and more space in the baking-cupboard for me! It’s a win-win.
Bath and bed
The rain will top up your bird bath nicely, enticing bedraggled birds to come for a wash. Many birds will also opt to dry off in an empty nest box. Sadly, none of our many nest-boxes seem to have resident families, but hopefully still offer shelter to anyone with soggy feathers.
Battle mould and mildew
Bird feeders need to be kept scrupulously clean from mould, which can be very bad for birds. But you also can’t throw a load of toxic mould-killers at it, as they’re also bad for birds. Instead, whenever you’ve found mould or mildew on a feeder, bring it inside and scrub in hot water with an eco-friendly dish soap, then leave to dry completely. A 10% bleach solution, well rinsed, can also do the trick and specialist cleaners are available.
Well, the forecast is looking a little better next week, and I’m crossing all my fingers that my young pea crop survives 'Slugmageddon' – and that we get a dry half term at the end of the month, when we’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors and on the water. Meanwhile, I’ll be heading home this evening to give all my feeders a good wash, dry and refill.
Do you have any cunning weather-defying strategies for feeding your birds? Log in to share your tips below, or email us at the magazine - we’re all ears! :-)
You might have read my blog last week about Dorset (or any of the other great Dorset blogs we posted last week), and the wealth of wildlife we saw just on the way to our destination. Well today, it’s all about RSPB Arne, again.
I really need to learn how to smile on demand - and get some posing tips from Mark (Photo: Tom Parker)
It’s undoubtedly a beautiful reserve, and you’d be forgiven for going just for the views. Situated around the corner from Bournemouth and Poole Harbour, close by to the picturesque town of Wareham, Arne is a heathland jewel.
Amethyst, jade, citrine... (Photo: Ben Hall, rspb-images.com)
The reserve opened in 1966, and was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1986. Work has never ceased in maintaining and improving this immensely biologically diverse reserve and it’s easy to see how it inspired Mark’s 16,000 feature in a past Nature’s Home, as all through the seasons it delivers the goods.
For the magazine team, this statement held true. We were treated to Dartford warblers, raft spiders, sand lizards, stonechats, Mediterranean gulls, and so much more. Another treat was the recently opened superb visitor centre, shop and café, which filled our bellies at half-time.
No raft spiders, yet... (Photo: Tom Parker)
So what work goes on at Arne? Well, managing the heathland for Dartford warblers, woodlark and nightjars, as well as other species like smooth snakes and sand lizards is one, and some of the techniques include selective grazing, reducing bracken, eradicating rhododendron and removing plantation pines. It’s extremely important to maintain balance, as you might expect, heather and gorse are the keys to success.
Gotta keep those gorgeous feathers clean! (Photo: Ben Hall, rspb-images.com)
The reserve work also aims to improve and maintain freshwater reed bed, woodland at the fringe of the heathland, and sensitive areas of mire and bare ground, as well as ranging into other habitats like tidal reed beds with an eye to attract bitterns.
And if that wasn’t already enough, why not attract some ospreys while you’re at it? Building nests and incorporating decoy birds (that very nearly fooled some of us) is important, as ospreys are semi-colonial breeders. Fingers crossed for these spectacular fishers.
We saw sand lizards just up there (Photo: David Kjaer, rspb-images.com)
I’m already planning a holiday to Dorset in June. Why not plan a visit to RSPB Arne and see all this for yourself?