November, 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!
  • Christmas is coming: 12 easy things to do in the wildlife-friendly garden

    Presents to buy, parties to organise, food to cook, relatives to entertain…..I probably don't need to remind you that Christmas is coming!

    It doesn’t leave you much time to spend in the garden, but just spending a few minutes out there might be what you need to relieve some of the stress.

    So I’ve come up with 12 things that are easy to do in the garden in the run-up to Christmas, which you can mix and match with Anna’s 12 wildlife tips here to give you a very satisfying run-up to the big day.

    1. Leave any shrub and hedge pruning until the New Year. See, I told you this was going to be easy! Not pruning now will mean that any berries, moth eggs and larvae will still be available for the birds in these lean winter months.

    2. Put something wildlife-friendly on your wish-list to Santa. Maybe a birdbox, or a new feeder (here's my recommendation of the one that's best for keeping off grey squirrels - expensive but worth every penny)? They are presents that will give you years of pleasure.

    3. Feed the birds. Ok, so you will need to pull on your gloves and overcoat for this one, but keeping those feeders topped up at this time of year is so important. My recommendation (or at least my birds' recommendation!) is sunflower hearts.

    4. Leave the dead stems standing from this year’s flowers. They will look great when frosted or speckled with snow, they harbour insects and seeds for birds, and they help protect the soil beneath. You can tidy them up come March, by which time many of them will have been broken off at the base by frost and snow, making it easier to comb them out.

    5. Clean your feeders. Of all the things on the list, this will probably take the longest, a full 30 minutes maybe. But just as you won’t be feeding your human guests on Christmas Day off dirty plates, so it feels only right not to do the same for your feathered friends. There’s a very important reason to do it – bird feeding areas are where any bird disease that’s ‘doing the rounds’ can be transmitted, and the one we're really worried about is trichomoniasis: it is proving fatal to our greenfinches. So a quick sploosh out of feeders with weak disinfectant and then with warm water should do the trick.

    6. Buy friends and family presents that will help them have a more wildlife friendly garden. It is a great way of introducing them to the joys of nature. (And just to save you looking, here's the link to the RSPB shop - you don't have to buy from here, of course, but just in case...). (RSPB Editorial: What Adrian should have mentioned here is the new edition of his award winning RSPB Gardening for Wildlife book!).

    7. Rake up leaves from the lawn. It will mean you don't have bald patched in your lawn next year, and you can just put them in a corner, where they will slowly rot down to beautiful leaf-mould.

    8. Buy some wildlife-friendly seeds to grow in 2018. There are few better feelings than growing your own plants for seeds, and it is so cheap, too.

    9. Decide which part of the lawn you'll leave uncut next year. It could be a nice symmetrical shape, around which you just mow around the edges to make it look neat. It will save you so much time next year, and it's brilliant for wildlife. Here is some more advice about how to do it successfully.

    10. Pledge one thing that you will do for wildlife in your garden next year. Will it be the year when that pond finally gets built? Or you plant a hedge? Or you break up that ugly area of hardstanding and return it to nature? Write down your pledge and put it up on a wall where you won't be able to ignore it.

    11. Plant a bare-root whip. (A whip is a little tree). They are really cheap to buy, and don't need much of a hole to plant it. Once bought, the job could be done in 20 minutes, followed by a lifetime of pleasure. Here's my top tips for how to plant one.

    12. On a fine day, just take a walk around the garden. Soak in the sights and sounds, see if any wildlife is still showing, or remember the butterflies and bees or other wildlife highlights you've had there. It's great for the soul, and for your Christmas blood pressure!

  • Ring, ring, why don't you give me a ring?

    Last weekend, something happened in my garden that had never happened before: I caught all my birds.

    I should explain. A colleague and all round good-egg, Rich, and his lovely dad Peter came round to 'ring' the birds in my garden.

    I'm sure that many of you are familiar with bird ringing, but if not, it is a technique in which very fine nets (called 'mist nets') are slung between two poles.

    Birds don't see the net, they fly into it, and get caught in pockets in the net. They are quickly and expertly extracted by experienced and licenced ringers (for the sake of the birds, ringing is only be done by qualified people).

    The birds are measured and weighed, and a small metal ring is put on their leg, the right size ring for the right bird and on the right leg. And away the birds go, none the worse for their experience. Here's one of my Great Tits in the act of being ringed.

    The value of the work is that, should those birds turn up in another net on another date, then we get an insight into their lives such as where they go, when they go and how long they live. The scheme is administered by the British Trust for Ornithology, and you can find out lots more about how it all works here.

    But back to my garden. I was intrigued to see if I learnt anything new about 'my' birds and how they use the garden.

    The six nets were unfurled at first light, and then checked every 20 minutes through until about 1pm. In that time, 46 birds of 14 species found themselves in the nets.

    Now I record the birds daily in my garden, but never see more than two Wrens at a time. In those six hours, three Wrens were ringed.

    Similarly, I never see more than three Dunnocks at the same time, but in the ringing session we caught five.

    Watching bird ringing also allows you the privilege of seeing birds up close, which reveals things you would otherwise never see. For example, we caught a Chiffchaff...

    ...which allows you to see the 'wing formula', which is a way of looking at differences in the wing feather shapes to conclusively separate them from Willow Warblers.

    I also didn't know that in the past some people knew of Blue Tits as 'Billy Biter', but here I got to see why:

    We didn't catch any birds that already carried a ring, which is what you really hope for. But at least these 46 birds are now out there and may be caught by someone else, somewhere else, helping us understand a little bit more about our birds and how they are faring, which then gives us a bit more information to help save them.

    And you know what? After Rich and Peter had left, the first bird I saw in the garden was a Dunnock, but without a ring: at least the sixth in the garden that day!

  • Hung out to dry

    Once in a while, I bring you a blog that is little more than a set of photos, because nature sometimes speaks for itself.

    Today's is of a Sparrowhawk. He had just finished bathing in my pond, which is thrilling enough in itself, but on this occasion he decided to come and sit in a myrtle tree outside my bedroom window. (I originally thought it was a female based on the brown colouring, but have since discovered it is a second-year male. You'd never be able to work that out from most field guides!)

    And there he felt so comfortable that he decided to dry himself in the weak, late-autumn sunshine. Never before have I had the chance to see all the barring in the tail feathers so clearly...

    ...or indeed in the primaries, those largest wing feathers on the left.

    But look how much more prominent that barring is from below, and how he has a rufous patch on her flanks almost like a Redwing. Look, too, at those long, pure white feathers under his tail, albeit still a bit bedraggled at this point. Come the spring, these white feathers will be put to good use, when he will circle high in the sky above her territory, those feathers flared like a powder puff. Females do it even more than the males, signalling to other Sparrowhawks that the ground below is her territory.

    And, dried off, he gave me a withering look, and was gone...