June, 2017

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!
  • Everyone in, the water's lovely

    I wrote last week about the need for birdbaths, and what then happens? The heavens open! From the forecast, it looks like pretty much all of your gardens will have got a soaking in the wake that heatwave earlier in the month.

    But there is every chance that hot, dry weather will return, so putting in (and looking after) a birdbath remains up there as our July Giving Nature a Home activity of the month.

    I'm sure many of you have one already, and I hope you get much enjoyment from it. I have two (greedy, I know), but I also designed my pond to have very shallow, shingle margins, so that for me is one very large birdbath indeed.

    My regular bathing Sparrowhawks continue to visit for their own splash session, and I tend to see at least one bird daily. By the end of a splash about, they can look a right state!

    However, on one day last month two were in the pond simultaneously, and were fairly tolerant of each other.

    What I love about bathing birds is that when one bird starts, it seems to be a temptation that other birds then can't resist. Ok, so when the Sparrowhawk is in, everything else stays out of the water (although they don't disappear - they seem to know that their nemesis is temporarily incapacitated).

    But when, for example, a Blackbird wades in, it can soon be joined by a House Sparrow, and couple of Blue Tits and a Goldfinch in a communal ablution.

    Here are a couple of more unusual bathers that have visited recently:

    The first is of course a Jay, and they always raise their crown feathers in excitement when in the water.

    But how about this one?

    It's a thrush, obviously, but sometimes you have to add together the little things to identify them.

    Song Thrush: On the belly, has rather tear-shaped black spots on a yellow-buff base colour, the spots in more or less neat lines. Upperparts on the warm side of brown. Rather fine bill.

    Mistle Thrush: On the belly, has rather rounded black spots on a rather whitish base colour, the spots a bit of a jumble. Upperparts the grey side of brown. Rather strong bill.

    As this bird flew from the pond, it revealed its white outer tail feathers and gave a rattling call, proof that it was indeed a Mistle Thrush.

    As I always say, provide water and you never know what will arrive.

  • Bring out the paddling pool!

    I don't know about you, but I've been wilting in the heat lately. After just short sessions of gardening, I've been crying out for a paddling pool in which to dip my feet and wash away some of that clamminess and dust.

    It seems like my garden birds have been feeling the same, but they are able to take full advantage of their own bathing facilities, like these House Sparrows...

    So, with at least two more months of summer to go, we thought it was a good moment to select 'Make the Perfect Birdbath' as our featured activity for July.

    The concept is simple: go for broad and shallow, because birds are wary of steep side and deep water. And if you've got a garden with ground predators (ie cats), then try to raise it if at all possible.

    Below is the birdbath at the Barratt Show Home at Kingsbrook near Aylesbury, where we're working with the leading national housebuilder to set a new standard for wildlife friendly housing. You can visit the three Show Homes just to see the gardens if you wish.

    Our activity instructions on the Giving Nature a Home webpages show how to make a birdbath for next to nothing using an old dustbin lid.

    Or of course you can take a short-cut and just buy one from the RSPB shop!

    And if you've got one already, you'll know the pleasure it can bring us as well as the birds. Go on, Mr Wood Pigeon - why don't you just sit in it?!

  • Jumping out of your skin

    My transition into being an adult took many years (and some would say has yet to conclude). Imagine, then, what it is like to make the transition from youngster to maturity in an hour.

    That is what has been happening all over my pond, as revealed by some very interesting evidence left behind.

    The story begins 18 months ago when I filled my new pond for the first time. By summer 2016, the pond plants I had added were still tiny and there was very little vegetation apart from blooms of blanketweed, but wandering dragonflies from unknown ponds beyond my garden found this new home and buzzed about over the surface.

    Emperors, Broad-bodied Chasers, Southern Hawkers and Common Darters all came and laid their eggs, and by this spring I would catch glimpses of their plain-coloured, armoured nymphs stalking the deeps in their entirely underwater existence.

    Occasionally, I would hoick one out by accident when hauling out knitted sheets of dripping algae. Carefully extracted and returned to the water, they would jet propel themselves back to the safety of the deep water.

    Then, over the last four weeks, driven by increasing temperature and daylength and powerful internal clocks, the time had come for them to say goodbye to their aquatic life and become air-breathing, winged flying machines.

    However, despite all the time I spend in the garden, I haven’t seen a single one of them emerge. But I have seen the results. These things: exuviae.

    They bear witness to a remarkable metamorphosis, in which the nymphs find vertical stems of plants such as irises up which they can climb clear of the water. Their outer skeleton then cracks open behind their heads, and they drag themselves out of their shells backwards, leaving behind this perfect empty casing – the exuvia. They must then pump air and insect-blood into their crumpled wings before their maiden flight, a period where they are incredibly vulnerable.

    This is my collection of exuviae from just Year One of the pond, and doesn’t include all those that were out of my reach in deeper water. So far, over 60 dragonflies have emerged.

    So when do they make the transition? Well, these dragons so far have been Emperors, and they emerge and night and take their maiden flight at first light.

    So even though I haven’t seen the magical transformation this year for real, it just shows how quickly a new pond can become a home for wildlife. And how fascinating even just the evidence of their emergence  can be.