The Garden Wildlife in April

dscn5488.jpgApril was a month of great contrasts in South Shropshire as we experienced the warm and bright conditions that most of the country was favoured with, but there were also high winds at times, cooler days and a little rain, although the latter was not enough to make a difference to our rather parched and hardened clay soil. Our first chiff chaff was heard on the 1st while lesser redpolls and siskins were still feeding in the garden. DSCN0487cThe siskins – once a winter visitor here – are now with us in spring and summer too. They breed somewhere nearby and bring juveniles to the feeders in June each year.

Butterflies began to appear in good numbers, especially orange tip which fed in the sunshine on honesty, bluebells and lady’s smock around the garden borders and garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata in the hedges. This unassuming wildflower’s other common name of Jack-by-the- hedge’ is well deserved and it is worth cultivating for orange tips alone. DSCN5733

 

Other butterflies visiting the garden this month were peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, comma, red admiral and green-veined white although brimstone was not seen egg laying on the alder buckthorn as it has been in other years. Bumblebees of several species were around in good numbers and the solitary bee homes were buzzing as the red mason and other solitary bee species returned to their nests with pollen from our apple trees.

April was a good month for birds with several warblers showing up especially blackcap singing in the usual places and briefly a garden warbler. As the dandelions went to seed, bullfinch, goldfinch and linnet arrived to enjoy the seemingly never ending feast.  Song thrush and blackbird continued to sing and overhead skylarks, which nest in the field next door, were heard and seen on clear days. Our first swallows were seen on the 10th but there has been no sign of them checking out their previous nest site in the house porch. Buzzards were especially active and visited the garden frequently and thirty were seen together with four red kites in the field next door during late ploughing. Thirty six bird species were recorded in April in total in the garden.

In the small pond there were tadpoles galore and the first damselfly teneral was seen at the end of the month. The big pond also has breeding frogs and toads and at the end of the month a single lonely male frog continued to croak….

In all there were thirty six bird species recorded in the garden in April with several more overhead, but perhaps the most exciting was a wonderful male redstart (above) having a bath in a puddle on the driveway. A female also appeared a few days later and a male was heard singing, so I am hopeful for a nest somewhere in the garden in May.

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March Garden Wildlife

DSCN4573Here in the South Shropshire Hills Spring can arrive rather later than in some other parts of the UK. My garden is elevated and exposed to westerly winds blowing across the Long Mynd and other Stretton Hills towards my house, and we often experience weather here that is rather different from that in the local town, down in the valley below us. The temperature difference sometimes feels like it is about 10 degrees cooler here!

So far in March though, we have experienced lots of very beautiful spring days with bright sunshine and balmy winds, with only one episode of driving snow in the middle of the month. Our local birds have definitely appreciated this warmer than usual spring weather, with many species singing this month including both siskins and goldfinches. Most exciting for me though in terms of visiting birds, has been a single male house sparrow who at the end of the month was joined by a female.  I am hoping that either our thick hedges, or a vacant nest box, will encourage them to stay around and breed this year as this hasn’t happened here for some time. The total number of bird species in the garden in March was 32, and included a treecreeper and a tawny owl but with no sign of a chiff chaff yet or in fact any migrants.

In March mammals in the garden were rather few and far between at the beginning of the month, with the exception of a number of wood mice which had made their home in my terracotta rhubarb forcer! A quick look at the end of the month revealed a nest so I guess I am not going to be eating any early rhubarb crumble for a while yet.  No foxes, weasels or stoats were seen at all, but as the weather became ever warmer the runs of bank voles became more obvious in our meadows and in the orchard grass, and plenty were seen scuttling about. The only other mammals seen were the usual gang of grey squirrels intent on destroying our bird feeders.

There were plenty of queen bumblebees around from the very start of the month, feeding mostly on a small (and very invasive) comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum) that I have planted here. Due to its rampant nature I have relegated it the woodland garden where it can be kept under control and at this time of year, with no leaves on the trees yet, it is absolutely buzzing with queen bumblebees.

Ring Ouzel crop

As April approaches I will be looking out for a rather special bird here. A few years ago we were visited by a male ring ouzel on his way to uplands further north. He stayed around the garden for a time, feeding on the short grass of the orchard before moving off again, so I will be keeping my eyes open over the next few weeks for this beautiful migrant thrush.

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Swallows or Wrens?

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There is a lot of bird activity around my garden at the moment with tits and finches colouring up, plus there is plenty of territorial squabbling going on. Early mornings are now a symphony of thrushes singing, wood pigeons cooing, goldfinches twittering and chaffinches chirping, interspersed with the reedy songs of robins and dunnocks.

But loudest of all these songs is the wren’s. Last year we had four or five wrens’ nests around the garden, mostly in small woven ‘roosting pockets’ that were conveniently placed a couple of winters ago to provide warm spots for tits to spend cold frosty nights. One in the front porch of our house had been used through a few winters by a succession of great tits, so we were sure these little structures would be useful, but as spring approached a couple of years ago wrens quickly took over the porch pocket and after building their intricate mossy nest, raised five or six youngsters. This has happened for the last two springs and the garden is awash with wrens. They have a winter roost under the eaves at the back of the house and up to sixteen have been counted using this on cold evenings.

Roosting pockets in a garden Clematis on my potting shed, in a Cotoneaster against the house and under the eaves of my log cabin Teaching Room, were all occupied by nesting wrens last spring and at the end of the breeding season the garden was overflowing with them.  The Teaching Room was abandoned for a few weeks so as not to disturb the nests, but the house porch could not be out of bounds for obvious reasons.  Thankfully our sympathetic postie made his way daily to the back of the house and left the post in a dry spot, but visitors were invariably startled by a tiny brown bird flashing before their eyes as they rang the doorbell.

Wrens are one of my favourite birds but there is a dilemma with the porch nesters. Prior to their occupation of this warm, sheltered spot, the porch was a nest site for swallows, which we welcomed with open arms.  On a couple of occasions when a door was left open, a swallow made an exploratory foray into the house and up the stairs. One found his own way back out again but another, after perching on a picture frame, was gently caught and returned to the outdoors.

We considered having swallows nesting around our house a huge privilege and we miss them, as since the wrens have taken over, swallows have visited the porch and twittered a little on their ledge but then moved off, probably to the small hamlet down our lane where they nest in tumbledown brick sheds. Many house sparrows also nest under eaves in this tiny hamlet.

So this spring I have made the decision to remove the wren pocket from the front porch. There is a chance that wrens will build a nest there anyway on the swallow ledge, but I am hoping that will not be the case and that ‘our’ swallows will return. Plenty feed around us throughout the summer on the thousands of winged invertebrates that this organic, wildlife garden produces, plus they also drink from our big pond, but they no longer breed here. So I am hoping to save this little space for them – the wrens can have the rest of the garden.

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February in a Wildlife Garden

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February was a month of contrasting weather. At times it was remarkably mild with wintery sunshine here in South Shropshire, but at the end of the month storm Doris hit us with a vengeance. Thankfully there was little real damage in our wildlife garden except that the majority of the hazel catkins were blown right of the branches.

Birds dominated the garden last month with 30 different species recorded in the garden including our now resident willow tit. A wonderful flock of 30 redwings sat on the hedge between the garden and the field next door. They repeatedly went down to feed on the rough, sheep- nibbled grass or trailed across our wildflower meadow in a line like a forensic search party, looking for, and finding, a good selection of invertebrates. Winter finches eventually put in an appearance with two lesser redpoll and three siskin on the feeders at the end of the month, but still no bramblings.  Three wild mallard ducks spent a few nights on our big pond and at the very end of the month a visiting heron discovered our spawning frogs.  Coloured string was immediately placed around the smaller pond at about heron knee height which seems to have deterred it a little. Herons have to eat but I would like to see a good population of surviving frogs in the garden again this year.

A flock of 10 or 12 long-tailed tits visited daily, feeding mainly on fat blocks but by the end of the month only two remained and the start of a mossy nest was found in one of the hedges.  However the most exciting bird related event in February was a resident song thrush, singing every morning and evening from the large ash tree in the garden. Another joined in from the wood next door and as the month progressed they were joined by great tits, dunnocks and chaffinches singing, and finally, on the 27th, by a blackbird’s rich song in the early evening.  A pair of woodpigeons sat side by side in the apple tree, cooing loudly and rubbing beaks.   Spring is on its way!

Elsewhere around the garden a few flowers put in an appearance. The snowdrops were in full bloom and here and there in shorter grass, the bright yellow of celandines could be seen. A few flurries of snow at the end of the month did little to dampen my enthusiasm for the advent of March when hopefully spring will arrive in earnest. I am looking forward to more bird song, toads spawning in the big pond and nesting activity from the blue tits and great tits in our bird boxes.

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January in a Wildlife Garden

galanthus1877January saw an influx of birds into the garden here as we saw more movement of flocks of winter birds in the fields round about us. Species such as starlings, linnets and redwings, which are unusual visitors to the garden here, sat around on our hedges and made for very interesting bird watching.  We also had our first winter finch – a couple of lesser redpolls – but there is still no sign of siskins or bramblings.  Song thrushes began to sing every day – one in particular from the top of our ash tree – a truly wonderful and spring-like sound. As the month progressed a second also started to sing from the woodland next door.

The weather continued to be mild, foggy and relatively dry and the bird feeders were exceptionally busy with more than twenty species in the garden most days. Fieldfares continued to feed on the fallen apples and there are still plenty lying under the trees in the garden. Only two mammals were seen this month, both on the patio at the back of the house. The first was a bank vole that managed to find his way inside a bird feeder! Clearly he knew what he was doing and popped out again easily, leading me to believe that this was a regular occurrence. The second was a weasel for which we had excellent views as he chased around for several minutes – presumably searching for the bank voles that frequent this area.

By the end of the month other birds were starting to sing in the relatively mild weather and great tit, chaffinch and dunnock were heard singing from the top of the hedges. Our willow tit, which had not been seen for a couple of week, returned to the feeders along with two marsh tits.  Both marsh and willow are still caching food in a variety of places.

The month ended with snowdrops just in bloom in the garden and on the bank outside our house – a truly uplifting sight.

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