August, 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!
  • Passing trade: night-time garden arrivals on nature's great flyway

    The days are shortening, the elderberries are blackening, and there's a definite whiff of autumn on the horizon.

    For those birds which are only summer visitors to Britain, their hormones now respond to the seasonal changes underway, telling their bodies to pack on the fat and get ready for long, intercontinental flights ahead. Thousands of warblers and flycatchers, Swallows and martins are destined for unimaginable journeys that will take them across the Sahara and into Africa.

    For those birds born this year, many barely two or three months old, this is the most extreme maiden journey, and they must do it alone. So they prepare. 

    In the case of most of our warblers, they begin by wandering more widely around the area where they were born, becoming familiar with the landscape they will hopefully return to.

    They then make an initial short night flight in a southerly direction, and it is in doing so some land up in unfamiliar places, including gardens.

    So, for instance, this week I peered out of my bedroom window first thing in the morning and could see a little brown bird peeking out from my shrubbery.

    It was indeed one of those 'little brown jobs', and as it hopped out to give a better view, I could see it had a whitish throat, pale eye ring, but very few other clear markings. However, the face is rather long and pointed, and the feathers under the tail are quite long and thick - you can see them in this next photo. It is a Reed Warbler, a long way from any reedbed.

    It was taking in the morning sunshine, catching some insects and having a preen, so vital for keeping its plumage in tip-top condition for longer flights ahead.

    As I watched, it was joined by a Robin, also grabbing the chance to spruce up its feathers - birds are very vulnerable when they are preening, so if they do it with other birds around them, there are more eyes to watch for danger.

    The Reed Warbler will have arrived in my garden overnight, so we have the temporary visitor sat next to one of my residents.

    The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a third bird lurking in the background right. Pale and brown, you'd be forgiven for thinking it is another Reed Warbler, and the dark shadow over its crown might make you think of Blackcap, but it is actually a Garden Warbler,.

    The name hardly does them justice, for they are far from frequent visitors to gardens, much preferring dense scrub and young woodlands. Like the Reed Warbler, it will have touched down overnight, and also be hoping to prepare for a longer seacrossing of the English Channel and on down across Europe and the Med.

    By the next day, there was no trace of either of the warblers, but a Willow Warbler was now darting along the pond edge, another new arrival in the conveyor belt of migrants.

    What will it be tomorrow? Through September, the suite of temporary visitors will switch to Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, with maybe a Spotted Flycatcher or two, and I'm hoping for a Redstart or Pied Flycatcher to drop in. With all the berries and insects in the garden, they will hopefully find a nutritious snack to fuel them on their way

    Such is the excitement of migration season. Even in cities, the unexpected can drop in, and the more that your garden is stocked with lush planting of trees and shrubs, akin to a sunny glade, and preferably surrounding a liovely pond, the greater your chances.

    So keep your eyes peeled for the passing show. Many of the birds involved might be rather small and insignificant looking, but the adventure they are on is mind-blowing.

  • Polishing my batting technique

    Ah, the blessed rains!

    Here is my pond this morning, the surface stippled with the pounding drops.

    The first rains came 10 days ago, and it amazing how quickly it has aroused the lawn from its desiccated slumber. Compare it with how yellow it all was just before the rains began:

    The pond is my biggest magnet for wildlife in the garden, with a Heron there this morning and a Kingfisher on the island earlier this week. However, one of its greatest shows is as night falls.

    Last night it was the evening sky that provided the drama as the sun peeped out from under some rainclouds:

    But most nights it is the arrival of the bats that offers the entertainment. I stand at the pond edge and slowly get my eye in.

    The majority appear to be pipstrelles of some kind, dashing at high speed, 'turning on a sixpence' as my granny used to say (do people still say that these days?). I'm saving up for a good bat detector that will help me pinpoint whether they are the Common Pipistrelle or the Soprano - it is amazing to think that these were not recognised as two different species until the 1990s.

    However, about a month ago, a bat arrived at the pond that behaved differently. Its flight was slower, its turns not as dare-devil, its habit more fixed of circling at a stready 5 metres above the pond, only jinking away from its course on occasion.

    It meant I was able to grab a couple of photos.

    Alert: worst wildlife photos on the web coming up

    I love its little sticky-out ears - if this had been a Long-eared Bat, they would have looked whoppers in comparison (and Long-eared don't like to be on the move until it is really dark, and then they often hug close to trees, even grabbing caterpillars off leaves.)

    My 'slow bat' has now become 'two slow bats', and they are pretty much a nightly fixture now. The likelihood is that they are one of the species in the Myotis genus, of which the commonest is the Whiskered Bat. It is often found around houses, where they roost and raise their young in crevices in roofs and walls. However, little is known about where they hibernate, showing how little we still know about even relatively common bats.

    I will report back once I've managed to pinpoint which species they are. But the real excitement, the crowning glory, will come if they take up residence in any of my crevices. .

  • The magic of ponds: instant dragons

    If there is one group of wildlife that responds quickly to your efforts, it has got to be the dragonflies and damselflies. All you need is to put in a pond of moderate size in a fairly sunny position and you would be very unlucky for it not to soon heave with these stunning insects in summer.

    My pond is now two and a half years old, and so into its third summer, and I've just been visited for the first time by what is my ninth species of dragonfly, a Ruddy Darter (to add to my seven species of damselfly).

    It is one of the more difficult species to identify, because it is very similar to a very common and widespread species which is just beginning to emerge in numbers right now, the Common Darter.

    My Ruddy Darter sat very obligingly forme, as they like to do, as long as you approach with stealth and patience:

    The origin of the 'Ruddy' part of the name is pretty apparent - it is as if the abdomen is painted pillar-box red, with gloss rather than matt. But notice too how the abdomen (the 'tail') appears pinched near the body and them rather club-shaped at the read end.

    It is this combination that separates it from the Common Darter, which I also photographed this week at the pond in almost the same place:

    This one is holding its wings forward, as both Ruddy and Common Darter sometimes do (it's a way of actually cooling down by shading the thorax - they like to be warm, nut not scorching), but see how the abdomen has a somewhat more orangey and less glossy, and without such a dramatic pinched and club-tailed shape. It's subtle, and requires getting your 'eye in'.

    It can be very useful to see the darters from other angles. Here is the same Common Darter as in the photo above, but taken from the side:

    Common Darter has thin yellowish stripes on its legs, and bold yellow patches on the side of its thorax (the 'body').

    Let's zoom in to see those better - you can hopefully make out the yellow stripes on the front leg nearest us, and one of the big yellow blobs just behind the 'armpit' of that front leg. Ruddy Darter in comparison has dark legs and dark sides to the abdomen.

    What I haven 't yet touched on is that two I've shown you are both males. The females and young males are even more difficult to identify, having rather an amber-coloured abdomen.

    So for now, let's just enjoy the beauty that is a dragonfly at close range, knowing that this is possible in almost any garden. The Ruddy Darter is found across most of lowland England, Wales and Ireland, and the Common Darter extends right up to northern Scotland.

    I just love the complex mechanics where those wings join the body, with the bright red 'rivets' where the wings join the fusilage. These are four wings that can all be articulated independently in flight, making dragonflies surely some of the most accomplished fliers in the world. (I can only marvel, given my lack of arm and leg coordination on terra firma.)

    Oh, and at the beginning I said 'all you need is a moderate pond in a sunny position'. So what does 'moderate' mean? My recommendation is to aim for a minimum water surface of about 50cm x 50cm (which is an area of about a quarter of a square metre, or 2.5 square feet). Washing-up bowl sized ponds are really too small, but the bigger you go, the more success you are likely to get.

    A 50cm x 50cm pond could be dug and lined in a day (if not by you then by a friend or relative with a bit of energy to expend), a metre square of good butyl or EDPM liner is only likely to cost you around a tenner, and I boldly (foolishly?) predict that at this time of year you'd have your first dragonfly visit within a week of it being filled. Now how good would that be for instant 'giving nature a home'?!