December, 2010

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Name your 'Irresistaberry'


    I did have another posting in mind for today, but sometimes a subject pops up that is far too distracting.

    The thing is that, in response to my last posting looking at which berries are left until birds are desperate, the query came back, "So which berries get taken instantly, then?". Good question, Matt :-)

    Ellen has already posted her suggestion - Mahonia. And I started by thinking of Hawthorn, which is an absolutely vital winter food source for so many of the thrushes, in large part because there's so much of it in our countryside. But on reflection, nope, that's not quite on my top top list. And we can forget things like Holly and Berberis, which in my experience are more of those 'If that's all there is' type berries.

    I so wanted to include things like Amelanchier lamarckii, the Juneberry or Snowy Mespil. But a tree that fruits in midsummer is nice but doesn't do much for starving winter birds.

    So here are three that in my experience get guzzled before they've barely had chance to ripen.

    1) Rowan (left). Blackbirds in particular, but all the other thrushes too, seem to find this irresistible. It's a prime choice for Waxwings too, but few are left by the time they arrive here.

    2) Elder. I know, I know, it's not the most attractive of trees - all a bit scrubby and wayward. And how wonderful it would be if those great pancake flower heads were stuffed with bees and butterflies when usually they are insect-free. But all those succulent clusters of juicy berries? Starling and Blackcap heaven.

    3) Wild Cherry. There's a big stone to negotiate, but apart from that birds over millennia must have been very grateful for these natural late summer treats

    Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to share your experiences - it's the best way for us all to learn!

    And I hope you enjoy your berries too - cranberries maybe?! A very merry Christmas to everyone, and I hope Santa does you proud in the gardening department,

  • When second best becomes vital

    Spot a winter tree covered in berries and my reaction used to be, 'Ooh, that looks good for birds'. But if you think about it, it can't actually be that good if the birds haven't eaten them yet. Uneaten berries must be the plate of plain digestives next to the almost-empty plate of choccie ones; they are the sprouts of the Christmas dinner vegetable selection.

    And so last week I decided to go for a spot of berry watching/photographing to see what leftover berries were still on the trees

    Now it is quite possible that some trees and shrubs were still berry-laden because of their location - nice berries in a dangerous place are going to be an uneaten as nasty berries in a safe place.

    But nevertheless I saw enough berries in enough places to feel confident to give you my current top three in the 'probably look better than they taste' category.

    At Number 3: Rose hips. These (left) are almost certainly the big 'tomatoes' of Rosa rugosa, the Japanese Rose. But small uneaten hips were plentiful too

    At Number 2: Pyracanthas. Yes, where a bush was trained up a house wall next to a front door you can imagine that birds are wary of visiting. But look at this succulent collection (right) in an ideal position for a Blackbird or Song Thrush, but with no takers.

    And at Number 1: Cotoneasters. Trees, shrubs, ground cover - wherever I found cotoneasters I found berries. And perhaps the most frequent and the most berried was Cotoneaster horizontalis (left), the one with the herringbone stems that can crawl up a north-facing fence or over a wall.

    So it was interesting to find one Blackbird munching determinedly into the uneaten cascades of cotoneaster berries. It seems that, when times get tough, even the sprouts of the berry-world begin to seem attractive.


  • A face at the window

    A couple of nights ago it warmed up slightly. I'm not saying it was mild, you realise. But it was enough of a hike in temperature for me to get a nocturnal visit.

    And here is the little fella who decided to pop by. He's only about an inch across (about half the size it appears on your screen), and not exactly the most exotic-looking moth in the world, but you have to give credit to one that is out and about in this winter we're having.

    But that is exactly what this moth is designed to do, for this is the Winter Moth. And I'd recommend that in any slightly milder burst you keep a watch at any lit window as you head to bed because Winter Moths are probably in almost every garden in the country.

    We can tell he is a male because he has wings. The females he will set out to find have decided to forego the awkward encumbrance of flying apparatus and instead just have a couple of useless tufts. They can't fly; they can't hop. It makes them look like scruffy bugs, but the males don't seem to mind - well, it is dark when they meet.

    It means of course that the females can't travel far from where they grew up as a caterpillar.

    How this works is that the females lay their eggs now in mid winter next to leaf buds in all sorts of deciduous trees. The caterpillars hatch in spring and eat the leaves. Sometimes this is to the point of being a pest, but they are vital protein-rich mini-snacks for birds.

    When those that survive are fully grown, something switches inside them telling them to get out of the trees and into the soil. Down the branches and trunk they go.

    As the adults then hatch in winter, the females clamber back to whence they came, whereas the males can flutter off in search of lasses from another part of town. And all might make a nice winter snack for a passing Great Tit or Chaffinch or Treecreeper.

    So there's something to be said for the humble Winter Moth - so small, yet so tough, and so vital to many a foodchain.