March, 2011

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!
  • Ooh, look, a butterfly!

    I had the pleasure this week of visiting Highdown Gardens, a free-entry public garden run by Worthing Borough Council. Set out one hundred years ago into a chalk quarry on the South Downs, it is renowned for its glorious spring displays of bulbs in a dozen or so intimate, sheltered glades.

    It was deliciously warm, with many little sun-traps that had drawn out bumblebees, Bee-flies and even a Common Lizard.

    And among the radiant displays of hellebores and narcissus, scilla and chinodoxa, some spring butterflies were on the wing. "Ooh, look, a butterfly!" If I heard it once from visitors around me, I heard it a dozen times, and I bet it was a line repeated all around the country a million times over. Maybe you said yourself too!

    It seems that  the spotting an early butterfly evokes instinctive excitement in us. Maybe it is a primeval sense of nature confirming that spring is here, that good times are coming.

    Most of the butterflies at Highdown were male Brimstones, endlessly wandering from glade to glade in search of a female waiting in the grass. Despite not having drunk nectar since last August, they seem to have little need to replenish now.

    But the single Peacock (left) clearly was hungry - its chosen tipple of the day was Muscari, the Grape Hyacinth. The plants aren't labelled at Highdown, and there are several very similar Muscari, but it looks very much like Muscari armeniacum or neglectum (but do correct me if you know otherwise).

    There are actually very few suitable nectar plants for spring butterflies. Peacocks will nectar at sallow blossom, often hidden from view up in a tree. They will also visit Blackthorn blossom, and then hawthorns in May.

    But have you seen butterflies nectaring this spring? If so, let us know what plants they have visited.

    Make sure the butterfly was drinking rather than just sunbathing! Here's a close-up to show that this Peacock was actually drinking - notice the proboscis inserted up into the tight bottle-neck of the grape hyacinth flowers. But butterflies will often sit on sunny plants to soak up the sun, making us think it is a good nectar plant when it isn't.

    Hopefully you can use the suggestions to provide more post-slumber drinks for thirsty butterflies, and so give yourself an even better chance next spring of excitedly saying, "Ooh, look, a butterfly".

  • Lovely ladies all over the Bishop's spurges

    A bit of sunshine and suddenly there's just SO much to blog about. Will it be Hairy-footed Flower Bees? Might I go for Prunus blossom?

    But, no, it has to be this bevy of beauties I found while passing through the Bishop's Garden in Chichester on Wednesday (left). (It's a public garden, by the way - I wasn't just trespassing).

    It is a spring cluster of 7-spot Ladybirds, probably the most frequently seen ladybird of our 22 native species. (Before I get letters, I do realise there are another 20 or so members of the ladybird family in Britain, but they're not domed and spotty like the ladybirds we know and love.)

    These 7-spots will have been stirred by this week's warm weather into emerging from hibernation. They will have been tucked away through all the cold weather in sheltered location behind ivy, in evergreens, under leaves. And now they were gathering at the tip of these spurges to absorb some of the heat and get themselves going.

    From now on, it is a case of finding lots of aphids to munch on (hoorah!), securing a mate, and getting their eggs laid by April or May, before their life is spent. In fact, two were so excited by the unseasonal temperatures to have got it together already (right).

    The second photo is actually rather useful for identification purposes. Ladybirds can be very variable, but notice how the pronotum (the broad black 'neck' with the two white squares) is black all along its rear edge. And the first black spot in the middle of its back is preceded by two small white spots. Those are all typical 7-spot characteristics.

    But go back to the first photo and spot the interloper. You'll notice that the uppermost ladybird at the back has many more spots - you can see at least six in the photo even though you can only see one side. It's a Harlequin Ladybird, the invasive species that was introduced here from Asia, and about which there is such concern because of its tendency to eat our native ladybirds.

    The Harlequin only arrived in 2004, and already it is widespread across much of England and has reached Wales and Scotland.

    Harlequins are very variable in their colour and spotting, but they tend to have a white mark at the rear edge of the pronotum, and no white mark on the front edge of the main spotted body.

    So keep your eye out for ladybirds coming back to life. And hopefully like me you'll see the encouraging signs of lots of 7-spots managing to survive.

  • How two old footballs can become a step up for nature...

    With warm sunshine today and the conservatory door open, a queen wasp came in and started diligently checking the keyholes, looking (rather optimistically!) for a nest site.

    My Blue Tits were house-hunting too, in and out of their preferred nestbox today for what I hope will be a tenth breeding year in a row. As their life expectancy is only two or three years, I like to think these are the great grandchildren of the original pair. Whether that's right or not, it's good to see that the original box still has 'curb appeal'.

    Frog and Toad spawn also appeared this week. As happens every year, it was all clustered in the sunny corner of my pond. It's funny, isn't it, how picky creatures are as to where they nest. I guess they have to be - it is such a vulnerable stage in their lives and their youngsters.

    Each and every species has their own particular 'ideal home', and gardens aren't always flush with the sites they require. So, with the RSPB's rallying call of 'Step up for Nature' ringing in my ears, I decided it was about time I filled one of the gaps in the 'property portfolio' in my garden. My target this weekend? Wrens.

    Now what Wrens need are hollows, holes or dense cover, fairly close to the ground. And they need lots of them. A male will build a selection of domed nests, and his mate will pick her favourite. He will sometimes have a second female nearby for whom he is doing just the same - male Wrens can be busy boys indeed.

    If you'd like to provide some extra Wren nesting sites, you can go the easy route and head to the RSPB shopping pages for a ready-made nestbox. Feeling unexpectedly creative, I decided to make my own.

    Which is where the footballs come in. I had two floppy old balls (above) from my 5-aside 'glory' days lying around, which were duly 'transformed'. I cut out an entrance hole, bodged some drainage holes into the base, and camoflaged them (as best I could), on the outside only, with some all-surface paint. Eh voila(right). What do you think? (Be kind!).

    Here (left) is one of the finished 'residences' tied into the depths of an evergreen Viburnum. I'd say that if I was a Wren I'd be into it like a shot. Time will tell (and I'll let you know if I get any takers).   

    Creating a nesting site is a great 'step for nature'. There's loads more you can do to step up and help wildlife through our Homes for Wildlife project.

    Oh, and do check out our brand new campaign, 'Stepping up for nature' - it's going to be a biggie, and every step counts.