May, 2009

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Ladies on the move

    If you were out and about over the weekend, maybe you'll have noticed something unusual going on.

    No, I wasn't thinking of the unusually good bank holiday weekend weather that many of us enjoyed (though that was nice). Or the resulting sunburned humans. I'm talking butterflies on the move - painted ladies, to be specific.

    This weekend saw a massive influx of these beautiful pale orange butterflies into the UK, especially the south and east. I read one report from near Norwich of 100 painted ladies flying through per minute! What a gobsmacking sight that must have been...

    Seeing loads of butterflies is always great, but I'm full of admiration for these little creatures. They're true migrants and will probably have hatched out in north Africa before making their way through Europe and then crossing the sea to reach our shores. If you were at the seaside, perhaps you'll have seen them arriving?

    Even if you were inland, you might well have seen painted ladies fluttering past you at a rate of knots. Several passed through my Cambridgeshire garden on Saturday, but they weren't interested in stopping to sample any of my flowers, or even just to have a rest. They just kept on going.

    That got me thinking... how do they know where they're going? Do they have an end destination? Do they fly a set distance and then stop - what makes them settle down and start to feed and breed? It's mindboggling!

    Here at The Lodge, today's weather is horrible - wet, windy and cold. What will they be doing? Maybe they'll have to stop now...

    • Our friends at Butterfly Conservation would love to hear about any painted ladies you've seen lately. They've got a simple survey where you can plot your sightings on a map.
  • Just add water for wildlife

    It's almost a year since we dug a pond in our garden - with the wholehearted blessing of our conservation-friendly landlord.

    What a year it's been. I only wish I'd done it earlier.

    There was hard work initially, when we dug a hole measuring 3.5 m x 2.5 m, and 0.75 m deep (about 11' 6" by 8' 3" by 2' 6") into the claggy, clay soil. And I can't say I want to repeat the accidental experience of touching a slug that was hiding under a clod of earth... yuck!

    But there was a quick and gratifying pay-off after less than a day, when the first pondskater appeared. And again, two weeks later, when two beautiful dragonflies - a broad-bodied chaser and a four-spotted chaser - turned up and started fighting. What was once boring lawn is now prime insect real estate!

    Through the summer and into the autumn, our modest pool was visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies, a small frog and some newts. I didn't know anything about newts before we got the pond done. Now I'm... slightly more knowledgeable.

    Newt in my backyard

    Some of ours turned out to be not just your normal, smooth newts, but extra-special, frilly great crested newts - the ones that bring building developments to a screeching halt. They're protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act because they're vulnerable to their habitat being destroyed.

    Undoubtedly, it's great to have something special and a bit rare in the pond, but the best thing is watching their behaviour. The male newts look a bit like a mini-dragon or maybe a stegosaurus. With tiny white speckles, a bright orange belly with black spots, a go-faster striped tail and a jaggedy crest, they look pretty smart.

    They spend their time lurking in the bottom, mostly, coming nearer to the surface in the evenings to perform mating displays. A swish of the tail and a waft of pheromones are what it takes to impress a female newt, apparently.

    I've learned that it's likely they came from less than a mile away, but it still amazes me that they managed to find the pond on their short legs. A bit of reading around on the web suggests that it's possible they could smell the water. Amazing!

    The most fun you can have in a garden

    I would go as far as to say that the pond project has been one of the most gratifying things I've done. So many people put loads of time, effort and money into decorating the insides of their houses. Why not put the effort into making your garden wildlife-friendly instead?

    There are so many more benefits...

    • Being outdoors is good for the soul (and vitamin D)
    • The pond means there's now a bit less lawn to mow
    • Because it's a fish-free wildlife pond, I don't have to worry about water filters. Oxygenating weed does the trick
    • In warmer weather, I can sit by the pond in the mornings, eat my breakfast and watch what's going on (or the ripples and reflections of the clouds). It's the perfect start to the day
    • The garden is my wildlife photography studio
    • No need to worry about slugs or dandelions - they're all good bird food
    • Seeing wildlife in the garden beats any fancy flower or expensive shrub hands-down

    Instead of thinking about the garden as a place where the lawn needs mowing and the veg patch needs digging, I feel more like it's my personal nature reserve, and I'm responsible for managing it. It's wonderful!

    If you fancy your own backyard nature reserve, we've got tons of free advice in our Homes for Wildlife project.

    What do you think?

    Register and log in to leave a comment - I'd love to hear your stories

  • A swift summer

    Flock of swifts in flight. Photo by Graham Catley.I’m going to declare it officially summer. Why? I know the first test has started, but surely it’s too cold? Well, it is still a bit cold (just ask the West Indians wearing several jumpers at Lord’s), but swifts are back! So, in my mind, it must be summer.

    Although, judging by the comments of my colleagues in London, they might not have them screaming above Old Father Time just yet. But they’re back here, and it’s great! For me, it always heralds the start of summer when I hear that distinctive high pitched scream. It’s time to dig out the flip flops and head to the beach. Well, almost.

    They’re just a dull brown bird though, aren’t they? Well, yes. But they’re much more interesting than that! Swifts deserve a bit of a closer look I think. Which is quite difficult considering they spend the vast majority of their life airborne. Bigger than a swallow, or either of the martins, they’re the perfect shape for an aerial life, although they are a scythe shape, I’ve heard them described as the ‘coat hanger’ bird! Any bird that can spend three years (yes three years!) without landing is a star in my book. Everything is conducted in mid-air, literally everything. It’s great to see them back. Next time you're in town, or in the beer garden, take a look up, they'll probably be there somewhere.

    But they’re in trouble. They like to nest under the eaves of roofs and in other crevices, so you can help out! Check out our Homes for Wildlife project for tips on how help swifts and other birds and wildlife. Who knows, you may get them nesting under your eaves soon.

    I associate them with hot and lazy summer nights, but they’re more of an African bird than British. They won’t be here for long, it’s often said they’re the last to arrive and first to leave. They’ll be gone by the end of August. So this summer try and take a look at these wonderful birds as they scream above your head and make the most of their swift British summer!