January, 2013

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!
  • The Norsemen cometh for Big Garden Birdwatch

    So here it is, the big one of the year, hopefully half a million of us all taking the time this weekend to count our garden birds.

    It's our once-a-year snapshot of the health of the nation's gardens.

    And I've got my Coxes and Spartans out and ready to try and ensure I get this beauty back in my garden.

    Isn't it stunning? Yes, the snows have pushed the Fieldfares over the Downs and into gardens all around here in Sussex.

    I took the photo on Wednesday. I don't have a garden big enough for a lawn, so this is actually on my garage roof where I let a bed of moss grow. It's such a safe place for them to feed up above all the cats below.

    Every now and then as you're walking around you hear their loud 'chak chak chak'. It is really distinctive from this winter visitor from Scandinavia.

    And then if you get a view like this they're easy to identify - it is a identikit bird, with grey head, dark streaked breast over a warm buff background, white belly, yellow bill, chestnut back and grey rump.

    But the bit I like the best? The black chevrons along each side.

    May your Big Garden Birdwatch be blessed with Fieldfares too!

  • And this is considered 'untidy'?!

    Just before New Year I got to pop in to one of my favourite places - RHS Wisley near London.

    It was a cold, grey day, but the thing that brightened it up for me was the herbaceous borders around the new glasshouse.

    It would have been so easy for them to have got in there with a scythe in October once is was 'past its best', and cleared it away to just leave a blank, bare set of beds all winter.

    But in their wisdom the RHS had left all the flower stems standing.

    With the massed dried stems of Phlomis and catmints and grasses, it was like a muted tapestry.

    And as I walked through, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes scurried and hopped away through the dense cover, thinking I hadn't seen them. Clearly they were very at home here, finding insects and seeds.

    We know that a lot of insects such as many beetles overwinter deep at the heart of clumps of grass - well, they'd have had plenty to choose here. And lots of the stems will have insect eggs on them or inside.

    And I bet all this looks good frosted with frost and snow too.

    Now I admit I haven't yet managed to create this effect perfectly in my small garden, but I'm working at it. The big issue is always this desire to 'tidy'. We're conditioned to it, but I'm resisting because clearly the results - visually and for wildlife - can be really impressive.

  • There's an anteater in my garden!

    At Christmas I got to spend some time with my parents in Worcestershire. Being their favourite son, I get the prime seat at the table looking out into the garden. (Ok, so I'm also their only son)

    On 27th December, breakfast was interrupted by the arrival of Professor Yaffle.

    Now for anyone too old or young to remember Professor Yaffle, he was a wooden bookend in Bagpuss in the shape of a woodpecker. But this was the Real McCoy, all mossy-coloured plumage set off with a bright red crown and black mask - the Green Woodpecker, the one with the delightfully manic laugh from which the country name 'yaffle' comes. (The photos are a bit hazy through the double glazing)

    He spent a good ten minutes on the lawn, usually in this position...

    ...up to his face in the grass.

    What a bird!

    His target? Yes, as many of you will know, Green Woodpeckers are ant-eaters, and every now and then as he pulled his beak out of the turf you could just glimpse his giant tongue flicking back into his mouth.

    It is an incredible tool. It is over 10cm long, and in order to fit it all inside the skull, it is coiled up around the back of the skull and over the top of the eye.

    Many woodpeckers have barbs on the tongue for yanking grubs out of holes. But not the Green Woodpcker. Oh no, it goes for goo. Its saliva is very sticky, so as it slips its tongue deep into the soil, ants stick to it.

    Winter weather is a real problem for Green Woodpeckers - icy ground makes probing difficult, and the ants move deeper too. So Green Woodpeckers are commonest in warm and wimpy southern Britain and are rather scarce in the north and Scotland, and absent from Ireland. If we get a real wintry blast now, as the forecasts seem to be saying, many will sadly succumb.

    If you want one in your garden, then the recipe is quite clear - you'll need a good-sized lawn, some trees for them to fly up into (for they tend to be nervous birds). And of course ants. Those gardeners who kill the ants in their lawns, well, they'll never have this glorious visitor.

    PS: You may have noticed I called this one a 'him'. The giveaway sign is the moustache. Both males and females have one, but the male's has a red centre.