September, 2016


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!
  • Meeting Mr Toad and his friend the frog

    Most of us have grown up with Kermit the Frog and Kenneth Grahame’s unforgettable Mr Toad – but how much do you actually know about these awesome amphibians in real life?

    As our own Adrian Thomas points out in his excellent blog on Gardening for wildlife, autumn is a great time to think about whether you’ve got enough suitable spots for both to bed down for the winter.

    But how exactly do you tell if you’ve spotted a frog or toad? And what are the most common species you may be lucky enough to find in your green space?

    Hop on and all will be revealed…

    How do I tell the difference between frogs and toads?

    Frogs have smooth moist skin, webbed feet, and are much more likely to be found in damp areas than toads. Their eggs, which they lay in bunches, are surrounded by a sticky, jelly-like substance known as frogspawn.

    In contrast, toads have drier, rougher skin, shorter hind legs and prefer to crawl rather than hop. Toads adapt to drier conditions better than frogs, and normally spend much less time in water. They lay their eggs in lines, or strands, on aquatic plants, and will often puff themselves up to appear bigger if threatened.

    Have I seen a frog or a toad?

    There are two native species of frog and two species of toad in the UK but, in reality, you are most likely to see the common frog or common toad.

    Common frog

    Common frogs have smooth skin that varies in colour from grey, olive green and yellow to brown, and is normally covered in dark blotches. They also boast a dark stripe around their eyes and eardrum, and dark bars on their legs. But, to make identification a little harder, they are able to lighten or darken their skin tone to match their surroundings.

    Common frogs are widespread in mainland Britain, most active at night, and hibernate during the winter in pond mud or under piles of rotting leaves, logs or stones. They can breathe through their skin as well as their lungs. You may also see them in meadows and woodland, and by lakes and canals.

    In spring, males croak to attract females. The male embraces a female and fertilises her eggs as she lays them in shallow, still water – frogspawn is a familiar sight. Tadpoles hatch, and over about 14 weeks gradually change into froglets: a process known as metamorphosis.
    Adults eat insects that they catch with their long, sticky tongue, snails, slugs and worms. Young tadpoles feed in algae, but then become carnivorous.

    Common toad

    Common toads range in colour from dark brown to grey and olive green and are widespread and common in mainland Britain.

    Common toads excavate a shallow burrow that they return to after foraging for prey and tend to live away from water, except when mating, and hibernate during the winter in deep leaf litter, log piles and burrows.

    During mating, the male clutches the female from behind in a tight embrace, and fertilises long, triple-stranded strings of eggs as she lays them. Tadpoles hatch after about 10 days and gradually change completely, or metamorphose, into toadlets over about two months. Common toads can live for up to 40 years.

    Natterjack toad

    Natterjack toads are rare and only found in the UK in sand dunes, heathland and coastal grazing marshes. They’re more olive-green in colour and smaller than common toads, have short legs which they use for short sprints rather than hops, and are sometimes called the ‘running toad’.

    Natterjacks can also be identified by a thin yellow stripe down their back and a loud call.

    Sadly, this awesome amphibian can only be found in south-east and north-west England, East Anglia, north Wales and parts of Scotland.

    Pool frog

    The pool frog – England's rarest amphibian – became extinct in the UK at the end of the last century, with the last known colony at Thompson Common, near Thetford in Norfolk.

    But it has since been reintroduced to a single site in East Anglia.

    Habitats at the secret location have been restored by the Forestry Commission after fenland drainage took its toll.

    Pool frogs can be told apart from the common frog by the yellow stripe that runs down their back, pointy face and generally darker skin colouration.

    Marsh frog

    Marsh frogs were introduced to mainland Britain in the 1930s. Europe’s largest frog stays in or near to water throughout the year – unlike native species which tend to leave ponds after spawning in February and March.

    The introduction of marsh frogs in Kent and Sussex may have accelerated the decline of common frog numbers in both counties.

    Marsh frogs are often vivid green in colour and generally much larger than native species – growing to 15cm and more. Male marsh frogs sport grey vocal sacs on either side of their head which inflate when calling.

    Midwife toad

    The midwife toad is known to be established in Bedfordshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Devon.

    Adults are normally grey in colour, but can also feature small black, brown, olive or green spots. They can be identified by their clear, high-pitched call which is often likened to an alarm call.

    Adult males can be seen carrying eggs wrapped around their back legs, hence the name.

  • How people like you are giving nature a home

    You may have seen our TV advert over the summer? It featured several of our nature stars, people like you who make their garden a wildlife-friendly zone. But just why are they nature stars?

    We asked some of them just how their family was giving nature a home. And here's what they said:

    Wood mouse


    We try our best to provide homes for a variety of wildlife. We have several bird boxes, but the birds also nest in our hedges and trees.

    We have a hedgehog house, but again find that hedgehogs will often nest elsewhere, including in a pile of dry onions once! The insect house is a recent addition, and we have a small pond. Even though the pond is very small, it's home for at least eight frogs, providing frogspawn and tadpoles every year.

    We regularly put food and have many bird feeders, as well a ground feeder for them. Another visitor to the bird feeders is a little wood mouse! Each night we put out mealworms for the hedgehogs and are lucky enough to watch several per night stop by for a meal.

    It's really important to provide water for nature, so have two tall birdbaths and lots of saucers of water on the ground dotted around the garden.

    Bradley with mini-pond


    My son Bradley is nature crazy, so its been great fun working together with various projects in our small urban garden, from building a mini-nature reserve, cooking up bird food treats and making sure our bugs have a good home to live in at our bug hotel

    We are very lucky to live next to woodland with a variety of old and new trees, which means everything we need for our wildlife projects is on the doorstep, a great way of spending a couple of hours together in the great outdoors. 

    We see the woods as an extension to our garden hoping to bring the wildlife in to feed in a safe environment, with the many feeders always stocked with meal worms, suet blocks, niger seeds, sunflower hearts, wild bird mix, peanuts and our own kitchen scraps special treats. 

    Our current project is building a hedgehog house in readiness for their hibernation period. Bradley already has the next activity planned with a bat box as we have previously seen them flying by the house. 

    Our biggest passion is watching the many birds flock to the feeders and Bradley likes nothing more than to tick them off in his bird books. We regularly see green woodpeckers on our walks and would dream to see them visit the garden, so that's definitely on the wish list!

    Bradley records all of his wildlife activities in his nature diary, which includes a well thought out plan, pictures and sightings in and outside the garden.


    As a family we have a few areas in the garden for wildlife. There's an old rockery that we now just leave to its own devices, as it has turned into a miniature slow-worm reserve.

    This area is covered by a vine-type plant and long grass with some plastic sheeting in parts to serve as shelter for the slow-worms, particularly early on in the year before the plant cover takes hold. Lola and her brothers Luka and Josh love checking under the plastic sheeting to see the slow-worms warming themselves.

    At the bottom of the garden we have a bramble patch that's popular with a group of sparrows, particularly in winter and spring. This also attracts lots of bees and butterflies when the brambles flower and provide us with plenty of blackberries through August and September.

    Next to the brambles we have our log pile - it's growing each year whenever we prune back a tree. This is a favourite with our slow-worms and of course woodlice, which Lola and Luka love to hold and observe.

    When we moved to the house two years ago there was a slab was missing in the patio, so this year we turned it into a mini-pond and have pond snails and plenty of midge larvae in there already.

    In a sheltered spot we have two hoverfly lagoons - consisting of a milk bottle cut in half, filled with organic material and water to simulate standing water that would form in a tree hollow. This is our first year doing this and plan to extend it next year. This has really triggered the children's interest, and they will regularly come running in to tell me of the hoverflies they have seen near the lagoons.

    We cut our lawn in two stages, one week we cut one half, and the following week the other half. We have a few flowers that grow in the lawn, the most popular with bees is clover. By cutting half at a time it ensures there is always some flowers in the lawn for pollinators and the children regularly take our bee identification sheet out in the garden and see how many different types they can spot.

    Finally, and the easiest one for us, is we leave the grass under the trampoline to grow long providing extra cover for lots of animals and insects.

    My two youngest spend a lot of time in the garden and by creating these spaces for nature it gives them something to do and care for, helping them develop a real interest in nature.

    What about you?

    If you're giving nature a home where you live, you can share you story with us on Twitter and Instagram using #naturestars

  • Monday's magic moment: beach birds

    Last week I enjoyed some special Monday moments at Titchwell Marsh nature reserve, on the north Norfolk coast. The scrapes and marshes were filled with birds, and the beach - which I had virtually to myself - was littered with thousands (maybe millions?) of razor clam shells. 

    At the water's edge, a beautiful black-bellied grey plover picked at the sand, while oystercatchers and godwits probed for shellfish and other hidden goodies. 

    But my real 'magic moment' came when a wheatear popped up among the World War II remnants of bricks and concrete. This charming bird - between a robin and blackbird in size - might have hatched in a nest somewhere in the UK's uplands. Or it might have flown from Scandinavia, Iceland, or even as far away as Greenland! It will continue its journey south to spend winter in Africa. Migration is magical and it's happening all around us right now!

    • This photo was taken by David Norton and comes from our own photo library, RSPB Images. Browse to find more breathtaking photos like this (you can order a print or canvas of any of them).