Notes on nature

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!
  • Are any of these hiding in your garden?

    It seems quiet in my garden at the moment. Ok, the birds are still coming to the feeders, but there’s not much else going on. There’s a lull. It seems that my garden wildlife is waiting for winter to slip quietly away.

    Does that sound like your garden? Well, let me introduce to what’s really going on...

    Broody birds

    Some of your garden birds are about to start nesting – even in February! Blackbirds, song thrushes and robins are well known to nest early and on the sunnier days recently, I’ve heard all three of them singing as the males issue their battle cries to rivals, and attempt to attract females. Yes – the garden bird breeding season is about to begin!

    Sleepy butterflies

    What of the bugs? There can’t be many of these around now, surely? Well, if you have a shed, outhouse or garage, these could be a warm winter home for a butterfly.Red admiral. Photo by Chris Gomersall (www.rspb-images.com)

    Species like peacocks, commas and brimstones hibernate as adults and survive our cold winters. Plus with warmer winters, red admirals are making it through too.

    When there’s enough heat in the sun to warm the fragile, and often tattered wings of these hardy souls, you may find them floating around your garden. Seven species have already been recorded this year, according to our friends at Butterfly Conservation.

    But it’s not just the adults. Brown and purple hairstreaks, for example, lay their eggs, resembling small sea urchins, during the autumn and leave these to develop and survive the winter. Other species wait out the winter as caterpillars and even chrysalises, before spreading their wings in spring.

    Hibernating hedgehogs

    Do you have a compost heap or log pile? Snug, warm and dry, these are the perfect winter des-res for a multitude of species, from hedgehogs and grass snakes to frogs and newts.

    We all know about checking under the bonfire for hedgehogs, and with warmer weather these spiky slug-munchers maybe rustling around your garden.

    Napping newts

    Newts, having climbed out of the pond are looking for somewhere warm, cosy and frost-free – so a compost heap is perfect! It’s around now that they’ll be on the move back to their breeding ponds – staking their claims to the prime spots. So look out for them on dark nights after rain. It’s a similar story for our frogs.

    As for our dragonflies, well their nymphs could be hiding away at the bottom of your pond – even if it’s covered with ice. Under the water it’s a battleground and they’ll voraciously devour any other pond life attempting to survive the winter.

    Dozing daffodils

    The plants are waking up too: there are snowdrops in full flower here at The Lodge. Their droopy, snow white flowers add a small splash of colour to a winter’s day. They’re followed closely by more colourful flowers though, as daffodils burst into flower: screaming that spring is here! Right now they’re peeking their green shoots above the soil – just waiting for the sun.

    And finally...

    So, you see, whilst your garden may seem quiet at the moment, it’s really just waiting to burst into life. I think of it as our wildlife is just resting up, taking a deep breath before exclaiming ‘Let’s get on with it shall we?’

    Do you have broody birds, hibernating hedgehogs or dozing daffodils in your garden? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

  • Will your local jays and squirrels go hungry this autumn?

    As I've wandered the trails around The Lodge recently, I've noticed something strange. Where there should be smooth, shiny, ripening acorns dangling from the oak twigs, there are distorted, crinkly growths which - to my eyes, anyway - look a bit like Ferrero Rocher chocolates...

    It turns out that this is the work of a small wasp which goes by the snappy name of Andricus quercuscalicis. The weird growths themselves are known as 'knopper galls' - the word knopper being derived from a word for a knob, stud, tassel or hat.

    The 'gall' is the growing acorn's response to the wasp grubs developing inside after eggs were laid there earlier in the year. In a similar way, you might have seen the robin's pincushion gall before - it's a common sight on wild rose bushes, with a tangled mass growing from the stem eventually turning red.

    At The Lodge, at least, there are not many acorns to be found this autumn. The galls are turning brown and falling off the trees, and the newly-hatched wasps making their escape.

    Jays are famous for their love of acorns, able to store away as many as 5,000 for a rainy (or cold) day. What will they do here this year?

    As members of the crow family - clever, bold, adaptable and omnivorous - I doubt jays will go hungry. They just might need to look for some different foods in different places, so I wonder if that could mean an influx of jays to garden bird tables? In the same way, might we see squirrels launching a hunger-fuelled assault on our feeders?

    Let us know what you see!

    Have you spotted knopper galls on your local oak trees? Leave a comment and let me know.

    Knopper gall by Katie Fuller

  • Think all's quiet? Think again!

    You might think that it’s the calm before the storm out there in your garden. That the blackbirds and robins are quietly going about their business in readiness for the upcoming breeding season. But, believe it or not, some birds will actually be putting the finishing touches to nests and settling down to lay eggs. Yes, really!Song thrush on a garden slab. Photo by Chris Gomersall (www.rspb-images.com)

    Every month

    There’s a few early starters you may find in your garden:

    As well as being very territorial and chasing away any interloper, robins have actually been found nesting in every month of the year! Usually it’s from early March, but there’s no reason why you won’t spy your garden friend nesting right now. In fact, we've already had calls telling us about nest building.

    Look out for song thrushes too. These speckle-breasted songsters also have a prolonged breeding season, and again have been found nesting in most months.

    Keep an eye out for blackbirds. Now, like robins,  they start nesting in early March, but we've had reports of nest building and, incredibly, already having feathered chicks.

    An urban thing?

    It’s been suggested that perhaps it’s an urban thing, what with more hiding places, mainly in garden shrubs, and potentially warmer temperatures than the countryside. This is certainly the case for woodpigeons, with urban pigeons beginning to lay eggs in February. We've had news that their cousins, the much daintier collared doves, are already breeding. They can, in fact, breed all year round if the conditions are right.

    Down at the park

    Away from your garden, a trip down to your local parkland pond or reservoir may well result in spotting more birds on eggs.

    Great-crested grebes can lay eggs anytime from mid-February and, in exceptional cases, even earlier! They build their nests from weeds and twigs, where they’ll hatch out 3-4 stripy youngsters. If not nest-building yet, look out for their elaborate, dancing courtship display.

    Take a look in the trees too for a massive, untidy nest. This could well be the work of grey herons. I always think they look a bit ridiculous in trees, but this is where they choose to nest, safe from any ground predators. After laying their eggs during February, 25-26 days later three or more Mohican-hairstyled punks will hatch out. We've seen the herons repairing nests from our viewpoint in Verulamium Park, St. Albans. For the next two months we'll be showing you the goings on at the herony, so why not pay a visit if you're in the area?

    What’s breeding in your garden?

    Have you seen any evidence of early breeding? Is there a robin in your nestbox? Have you seen a heron sitting on a nest at your local park? Make a comment and let us know what you’ve seen and where you’ve seen it...