July, 2018

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!
  • Flying Ant Days: A date with fate in the sky

    When I arrived home from work on Wednesday, there was a mass of gulls very high over my garden, each one gliding in its own little circles, creating overlapping, rotating patterns in the sky. You can just make out some of the flock here.

    There are actually 94 gulls in this photo. Yup, I counted them (and they are a mix of Herring, Black-headed and Mediterranean for those who like to know these things). I reckon in total there were maybe 800 or so gulls in total, and most directly in the airspace over my garden.

    This means just one thing on a sutry summer's day - it must be Flying Ant Day.

    Or, to be more correct, one of the Flying Ant Days, for there are usually several in a season.

    I bet the same happened in many a town here in Sussex, and indeed perhaps more widely, for the emergence of flyingants tends to be incredibly well synchronised, thought to be triggered by hot and humid weather conditions.

    The height of the gulls showed that the ants were already well airborne, so when I went into the garden, just a few stragglers were still scurrying their way up to the tops of grass stems and seedheads to launch themselves off.

    Flying Ant Days are when sexually mature, double-sized, winged males and 'princesses' emerge from their nests. Their mother (the queen) and her team of several thousand wingless worker daughters have been preparing for the big day, and now the time has come. The queen stays put in her nest while all this goes on, for amazingly she can reign for 20 years or more. So this is about sending out pioneering daughters and sons up into the skies to mix and mingle with those from other nests.

    For each male, it is all about securing one of the 'princesses' in flight. He will only survive at most a couple of days, but if the gulls, Starlings and Swifts have anything to do with it, his time could be much more limited than that.

    For each female, she will try to mate with several males, and the store of sperm she collects will have to last her a lifetime - it is good to have a mix of genes from different males to pass on.

    Those few winged females that survive then fly back to earth, nip off their own wings, and either enter an existing nest, or find a warm place under a paving slab or in a crack in the lawn to set up their own nests and raise their own broods of workers.

    Only a tiny fraction of those that took to the skies on Wednesday will actually make it, but you have to hand it to ants. This is one of the most successful groups of species in the world, and their complex and collaborative colonies are a miracle of evolution that has seen them develop something called 'collective intelligence'. It means they achieve more together than they do alone. It's a reminder to us that competitiveness isn't the only way to rule the world!

    With thunderstorms ahead, it could be the trigger for the next Flying Ant Day where you live. If so, it is a chance to marvel. And should the skies above start to fill with birds, well, it's yet another way that your garden is supporting wildlife.

  • Helping wildlife in the garden's summer heatwave

    There is one job I haven't had to do in the garden for 48 days now - read the rain gauge. As I enviously watch the blobs of blue move across the weather charts in the far north and west, tongue lolling, I'm sure almost all of you and your gardens will be feeling the effects of this desiccating summer.

    Just look at my lawn, if you can now call it that.

    I know it takes considerable nerve to hold off from trying to revive it with the hosepipe, but water is so precious that we must. After all, grass is tough - the yellowing is what nature designed it to do. Grass goes into dormancy, pulls down the precious moisture into its roots, and waits for the rain. If you want proof that your yellow lawn is very much alive, have a gentle tug at a tuft - if it pulls straight up, the grass is dead. But if it doesn't, it's not - it's dormant.

    In my 'meadow' area, the long grasses look similarly parched:

    But peer in among the swaying stems and look, there's green! It shows how sheltered the ground is down there, the effects of the sun moderated, protected by its own canopy of grass stems. No wonder letting grass grow long in places is so good for wildlife. If you haven't done so this year, do consider giving the mower a rest next spring.

    Elsewhere around the garden, plants such as my courgettes are struggling with mildew, that dry white fungus that forms like powder across leaves.

    I once thought 'mildew' must be something to do with 'dew', but it is actually a sign that the plant is water-stressed and needs more water.

    So, to make best use of water in the garden and not put pressure on precious supplies and our equally precious wetlands, the best tips are :

    • For those plants that must be watered such a plants in containers and veggies, do so early in the morning or in the evening so that the water doesn't immediately evaporate
    • Water occasionally and well rather little and often
    • Water at the base of plants where it is needed, not by spraying over the top
    • Mulch plants wherever possible to hold in the moisture
    • And take a deep breath and hold off from watering plants that will survive perfectly well without, such as lawns.

    Of course, the other thing in such hot, dry conditions is to ensure that birds have access to water, and right now bird baths around the country will be keeping millions of birds sated. A daily queue of visitors may form, and you may get unusual visitors all desperate for a sip - last year I was treated to a juvenile Spotted Flycatcher at my bird bird.

    All you need to do is change the water regularly to keep these hotspots (or should that be 'wetspots') hygienic, and then enjoy the splashy show!

    Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to do a raindance, and it's not a pretty sight...

  • Butterfly birthdays

    Right now in the first couple of weeks of July, garden butterfly numbers tend to rocket. The summer emergence of Peacocks, Commas, Brimstones, together with Meadow Browns and Speckled Woods, plus a surge in the number of 'cabbage white' butterflies, mean that there is a flitting and fluttering going on in a way not seen until this point in the year. The only problem is that it can all be very distracting when you're meant to be gardening.

    You can see the population boom in this graph, which shows the number of butterflies in my garden each week during 2017.

    The tallest bar is Week 29, which is19th-25th July, so you can see how numbers build from a June lull up to their summer peak in the next 2-3 weeks, tailing off again once we get into August. (Last year I also had a bit of an early autumn 'second-coming' when Red Admirals had a great final brood.)

    That is not to say that everywhere in the country will be exactly the same as my graph, but it won't be far off the same basic pattern - butterflies are such reliable timekeepers in terms of the annual calendar. You can predict butterflies' birthdays almost to the day!

    My butterfly of the moment whose numbers help create this boom in my garden is this one:

    It is the Gatekeeper, which when I was a lad used to be called the Hedge Brown. Certainly you see more along hedges than you do opening gates.

    It is very similar to the slightly larger and very common Meadow Brown, but even in its wings-closed position, the giveaway is the tiny white dots on the hindwing in brown circles.

    Also, the black eye-spot on underside of the forewing has two white spots, whereas the Meadow Brown tends to have one (except in Scotland where the Gatekeeper sadly isn't found). Sadly, this is not a butterfly of Northern Ireland, either, although with climate change we could see it expand ever further northwards.

    Here is the Gatekeeper, wings open.

    This is the male, with a black smudge through the bright orange panel on the forewing.

    Females lack this:

    ...and Meadow Browns don't have the orange panel on the rear upperwing. In the female Meadow Brown, there is just an orange panel on the upper forewing:

    And in the male Meadow Brown there is barely any orange on the upperwing at all:

    So here's a chance to put your Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown skills to the test. What do we have here?

    Both species have caterpillars that eat wild grasses. This is where a lawn just won't do - mown bowling greens of Rye-grass aren't to their taste. However, if you can create a patch of wildflower meadow, either in your lawn or along the sunny side of a hedge, you may help provide a home for the next generation. Then your garden can celebrate ever more butterfly birthdays.

    Oh, and our mystery photo? It was Gatekeeper above and Meadow Brown below - the white dots in the black eyes gave it away.