Friday, 16 March 2018

a delicious scent of pineapple chunks around the garden

Female blackbird recaptured last weekend
There is a delicious scent of pineapple chunks around the garden: local tree surgeons have answered our call for chippings which are now forming steaming mini-mountain ranges. Conifer shreddings lend the pineapple aroma to the air.

The garden is sodden.  I edged the lawn by the foraging border and this now resembles a ditch. The lawn squelches. George's Pond is splendidly full. Plants planted on what I thought was the pond edge are now submerged. No sign of amphibians yet even though they queue to get crushed crossing the nearby Lamins Lane (Old Coach Road)*.
For the first time since our arrival, a fox is seen in daylight on the lawn. I've captured them on the trail cam at night on many occasions. Rural foxes often lack the daytime confidence of their urban cousins. It has already learned how to turn the hedgehog cafe box over and eat the meal intended for its eponymous customers. Foxes have cubs in March. We think this is a vixen but she doesn't appear to be lactating. Possibly a subordinate member of a group out foraging? No more food on the lawn for birds. We're on red alert for the hens.

An adventurous stoat has also put in an appearance. Eggs are being eaten in the hen house. Circumstantial m'lud?

Our moth surveying has been mired in the rain, but in one notable nocturnal session we caught twenty one moths of six species. A big 'bag' for us so far this early in the year.

Garden flowers seem to have slowed their advance, daffodils and crocus being the exception. One hundred native bluebells 'in the green' and fifty cyclamen hederifolium have been bought and planted in the meadow edge and Birch Border respectively.
We've also been lucky enough to collect hundreds of winter aconites and snowdrops which have been planted along the drive and in the Woodland Garden. The wet weather must surely have settled these in: the new plants stand 'like soldiers'. Fifty purple loosestrife plugs have been planted around George's Pond (generously gifted to us by my favourite uncle and aunt).

The garden remains busy with birds: thirty garden species recorded using the BTO BirdTrack app last week. Blackbirds seem specially numerous but a surprising number are still without rings. In one of my silly moments I named our first-caught wood pigeon 'Ringo'. As others were caught they became 'Bingo' and 'Bongo'. I asked a friend to name our most-recently caught wood pigeon following the established theme. She chose 'Paul'. The forgotten power of lateral thinking.
Siskin, lesser redpoll brambling are still with us amid the flocks of greenfinches and goldfinches - the chatter and buzz of the birds in the trees is marvellous. Cleaning bird feeders is a necessary chore.

The Vegetable Garden is still yielding treasure like this final crop of Autumn King carrots station sown by WWOOF guests in the summer. Flavour unlike anything in the supermarkets. Next season's seedlings are being nurtured in pots beneath plastic covers. Our first 2018 WWOOF volunteers are already lined up.

*I am in search for crossing signs..

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Messenger'

This is my first venture as a film promoter!

I saw the film ‘The Messenger’ at a small screen at The Broadway and watched people being turned away as it was full.

As someone passionate about birds and our our natural environment I was determined to give the folk of Nottingham another chance.

So,I’m looking forward to the screening of 'The Messenger' on Sunday 1 April at 2:30pm at The Bonington Theatre Arnold 

Thanks to the Friends of Bestwood Country Park Under 16’s go free!!! 

'Su Rynard’s wide-ranging and contemplative documentary THE MESSENGER
explores our deep-seated connection to birds and warns that the uncertain
fate of songbirds might mirror our own. Moving from the northern reaches of
the Boreal Forest to the base of Mount Ararat in Turkey to the streets of New
York, THE MESSENGER brings us face-to-face with a remarkable variety of
human-made perils that have devastated thrushes, warblers, orioles, tanagers,
grosbeaks and many other airborne music-makers.
On one level, THE MESSENGER is an engaging, visually stunning, emotional
journey, one that mixes its elegiac message with hopeful notes and unique
glances into the influence of songbirds on our own expressions of the soul. On
another level, THE MESSENGER is the artful story about the mass depletion of
songbirds on multiple continents, and about those who are working to turn
the tide.
In ancient times humans looked to the flight and songs of birds to protect the
future. Today once again, birds have something to tell us’.

Concessions £4.50

For anyone looking to get tickets here’s the link!

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

without end ...?

Snowdrop - Galanthus nivalis
Winter aconite- Eranthus hyemalis
The winter stretches on without end.

Innumerable days when we have been unable to work outside due to poor weather.

There have been times over the last week when we've worked in the rain and snow and must have resembled an open prison work party. More of a gulag than a garden. I don't think that prisoners would work in such conditions.
Viburnum tinus

Rain has filled the barren pond which frequently lies frozen. Our local farmer-friend has given me another IBC (large 1000 litre water storage cube) and I need to site this so that I can harvest the plentiful winter rains for summer vegetable and fruit garden irrigation.
Viburnam bodnantense

Frost waits for us as we open the curtains. Stored apples have frozen.
Carrots, celeriac and leeks lifted from the Vegetable Garden are determined to make us pay for ripping them from their winter beds and maliciously numb the fingers.

Wind has prevented us from bird ringing and our moth recording has also been affected. The arrival of a bewitching grandson has been a glorious distraction.

Although winter keeps a tight grip, there is lots happening.
Gorse- Ulex europeas

Crocus chrysanthus
Hazel Coryllus avellana 'Nottingham cob'
Cyclamen coum
The bird feeding we have been doing has resulted in hundreds of finches including goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, lesser redpolls, siskins and bullfinches. The garden trees ring with their songs. My sister had a record 24 chaffinches feeding beneath her feeders in the week. We have a small community of tree and house sparrows using the drive seed feeder that is planted snugly against the tightly cut privet hedge. The musical chirrup of the tree sparrow - such a treat. They are prospecting for nesting sites.

Red dead nettle Lamium app
We hope to ring birds this weekend and I have placed a newly-constructed bird table trap beneath Judith's feeders in the hope of enticing chaffinches to enter. Only pheasants have shown interest so far but Judith sends frequent updates as small birds become more bold. The trap is humane and the occupants should feed without stress until being ringed.
Sarcacocca confusa

Lonicera fragrantissima
Stock doves are taking an early interest in the large nesting box in the Woodland Garden. I avert my eyes and keep my head bowed as I visit the hens - stock doves are highly sensitive to disturbance at the nest.

No bumblebee or butterfly records yet although honeybees have been active around their hives. A stoat paid an electrifying visit. Manic. Energised.

Witch hazel - Hammamelis x intermedia
Kestrel and sparrowhawk too: the number of small birds an obvious attraction.

Primrose - primula vulgaris
But last years tawny owl nest box has been occupied by grey squirrels. I'm hoping they only have a short term let.
Galanthus elwessii

And flowers are appearing.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

bird box resolutions ..

Providing artificial sites for hole nesting birds is one of the easiest ways to help our feathered friends.

Juvenile tawny owl in nest box
I've been nest box making since childhood and here I am, still at it.

Bird nesting boxes are great gifts and can be bought reasonably cheaply.
  • Site them away from where birds are fed - to avoid conflict when birds attempt to set up a breeding territory that is frequently visited by competitors. 
  • Make sure that the box can be opened in order to clean it out in the winter.
  • If cats are present, site the box above the height at which the cats can reach.
Then  sit back and watch the fun!!

I try and use recycled materials wherever I can. Mix together warped wood and my rudimentary carpentry skills ... and the result is frequently something quite eccentric. Fortunately, birds don't seem to mind.
Juvenile tree sparrow 

In 2017 I had 42 nest boxes sited in the garden. They ranged from small boxes with 25mm (1") entrance holes through to whoppers big enough for tawny owls.
I'd over-provided nest boxes in some parts of the garden so that blue and great tits couldn't possibly occupy all and to give choosey birds like tree sparrows choice. This inevitably meant that some boxes wouldn't be used.

18 boxes had been occupied in 2016 but with scant records of how many had been successful. In 2017, 16 were occupied and 64 young were ringed.  Tawny owl, tree sparrow, stock dove and wren used the boxes as well as the usual blue and great tits.
For people who like tables: 

#1 GRETI 5 ringed

#3 BLUTI 9 ringed

#4 GRETI - 7 dead eggs
Woodcrete box BLUTI - 2 dead eggs 1 dead young
#10 BLUTI 8 ringed

#11 GRET! - 1 dead egg
#13 BLUTI 6 ringed

#16 STOCK 2 eggs nest unsuccessful
#17 BLUTI 5 ringed

#20 BLUTI 6 ringed

#30 BLUTI 8 ringed

#32 GRETI 3 ringed

#34 Colony box 1st brood TRESP 4 ringed

#34 Colony box 2nd brood TRESP 2 ringed 3 young
#35 WREN 5 ringed

#37 TAWOW 1 ringed

#42 GRETI -

Ground nest ROBIN

3 eggs predated
Ground nest MALLA

10 eggs predated

6 species attracted to boxes 64 ringed

The abbreviations are BTO ones.

I was really pleased to have a box adopted and used by tawnies even though it faced onto the meadow into which we'd introduced harvest mice. Snack-sized fun. I'm told that once tawnies have bred successfully, there is a good chance that they will return. I certainly hope so as we all loved watching the fluffy chick after it had left the nest box.

I had placed what was intended to be a colony nesting box for house sparrows on the gable above the kitchen door. House sparrows showed no interest whatsoever - but the box (in four des res apartments) was used to raise two broods of tree sparrows - seven young in total. When we set the mist nets up on the adjacent farm, imagine the overwhelming sense of parental pride when the first birds we caught were ones we'd previously ringed as babies in the nest box above the kitchen door.. Come to daddy!!
Examples of starling and little owl nest boxes ready for siting

Stock doves laid in one of the larger boxes but the eggs were taken by a predator. Perhaps a magpie or a squirrel? Adult birds have been seen around the box again this week, so fingers are crossed that young can be raised successfully this year. Stock dove nests become filled with their faeces and so are especially fragrant in the summer.  I've been detailed to check stock dove nests as a penance for having a fondness for these sweet little big-eyed pigeons.

Now is the time for me to check boxes, to clean them out or repair. If boxes aren't used in successive years I move them, so several will be re-sited.

2017 was my most successful year in terms of the numbers of species using boxes and the evidence of young that were successfully reared.

In 2018, I am attempting to attract little owls and starlings to use garden nesting boxes. Both species are in decline.
Little owls really are little - no bigger than a starling. They are said to stomp around wet ground at dawn and dusk hunting earthworms. A BTO study on their diet concluded that Little Owls favoured mice, voles and large invertebrates.  This owl's numbers are declining but they get no protection as they are an introduced species.  Their eye stripe gives them a furious appearance at times. The little owl box design is more complicated than is usual as the birds like to travel in a tunnel with a 70mm entrance to the inner compartment which must have little light penetration. The box must also have a door that allows the checking of contents and access to the young for ringing. Thanks to Rob Hoare for sharing the design with me. We know that little owls bred successfully on the neighbouring farm last year and its only an avian hop, skip and jump to our place.

Little owl boxes are also potentially bespoke grey squirrel residences. I have been told that stinking ferret bedding can be placed in the bottom of the box as little owls like a bed and don't have a sense of smell. Squirrels do - and live in fear of ferrets, so their bedding is a great deterrent. I have some of the most-noxious vintage ordered.

CBC/BBS England graphWe see once-common starlings infrequently - a measure of their decline. We haven't had any starlings on our lawn. In our first garden (late seventies) I counted 30 on the small patch of lawn there.  The graph (from the BTO website) tells the sorry story. I recall a day in the summer last summer when I placed live mealworms in a feeder. Quite how so many starlings found these and so quickly I can't imagine. The subsequent frenzy has only been exceeded during the excesses of Black Friday. So, we know they're around.

Starling boxes are medium size and have 45 mm entrance holes. Starlings will happily nest near to each other so I'm hoping to find a quiet part of the garden where a little group of them can breed.

In addition to the boxes, I'm hoping to site shelves within some covered outdoor parts of the building with the hope of attracting house martins or swallows. These 'outdoor parts' coincide with the porch and covered areas of my parents' annex. I feel sure they'll understand ..

Perhaps putting up a box could be a New Year's resolution? Bird nest box week falls in the week of Valentines Day - that's plenty of notice. What better gift for the love in your life..?

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

goat willow and the RHS....

A supine goat willow rests on the other side of our hedge, half buried in leaf mould. He must have been a fair old age when he tipped over. He's down, but not out. Piercing his thick coat of moss are hundreds of new shoots and branches reaching skywards all along his prostrate trunk.

our stumpery of rotting wood
This persisting life is not only good news for him, it's good news for the many invertebrates that feed on goat willow (Salix caprea). Its' leaves are the food plant for more than thirty species of moth caterpillar. And its' famous pussy willow male flowers are the place-to-be-seen for butterflies on an early spring morning. Comma and small tortoiseshell drank deeply of that new season nectar this year. And bumble bees too.
And where he’s decaying, the saproxylic organisms that turn death into life in woods are contributing to 90% of the boiodiversity of the woodland.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) describes the goat willow's precious ecosystem of aphids, caterpillars, leaf beetles and sawflies under the heading 'pests'. But they also describe it as 'perfect for pollinators'.

Therein lies the problem for our RHS, a conflict within the organisation as yet unresolved.

We're RHS members and our frequent visits to their many glorious gardens are so important to us that they border on the spiritual at times, hungrily recorded with camera and notebook. We have to book two days of overnight accommodation to feel we've got all we should do from a visit to Wisley. Harlow Carr (and Betty's!) must be visited at least once a year. And although more far-flung for us, Rosemoor is always inspirational. 

With its huge membership and our national passion for gardening, the RHS is in a key position of influence but is appearing staid and conservative when radical approaches have never been more necessary.

When we were last at Wisley, we had a wonderful day. Thousands of others did too.  But as we walked around that bustling place there was an emptiness. It felt two dimensional. Where was the provision for wildlife? We did see a small group of migrant thrushes (redwing and fieldfare) feasting on berries. And the now-ubiquitous red-knecked parakeets were evident. But not much else.. Is the RHS search for horticultural perfection (and tidiness) working against wildlife? Wildlife likes it untidy.

malus hupehensis seen at RHS Wisley
It can be lonely here in the gardening ethical left-field. On our developing patch we're creating what will become a beautiful garden for biodiversity. So, we celebrate our native flora and measure our success by the use of our numerous bird boxes and bat boxes. Stacks of rotting wood are everywhere. Where it's safe, we leave the trunks of trees as standing dead wood. This year tree sparrows nested in a hole previously excavated by a great spotted woodpecker in a rotting birch. Trees clothed in climbers. The arisings from the meadows and prunings are piled for small mammals, slow worms and nesting wrens. Our prairie beds are left in their decaying glory until the spring and today, around seventy finches were scoffing from the various seeding heads. Our stumpery of reclaimed conifer roots is a slowly decaying heaven for creepy crawlies and fungi. We are passionate about managing our garden organically and have also created many ponds. Moths are monitored with the moth light throughout the year and we welcome bird ringers too. Our first priority is to make our garden as bug-friendly as we can. 

Messages are coming thick and fast that our invertebrates are in serious trouble. The reasons are complex and involve climate change, land use and use of chemicals. If invertebrates are in trouble, the birds, mammals and amphibians that depend on them will be in trouble. And, of course, they are - as we could be too.

The urgency of the ‘mass extinctions’ facing species on our warming planet does not appear to have put a fire under the feet of our RHS yet. 

It's time for our RHS to take a lead. I was impressed by the plans for the swanky new Nature Centre at Wisley. But cultural change is needed urgently. Practices encouraging invertebrate biodiversity must run through the organisation like letters through a stick of rock. The RHS must urgently become an exemplar of a style of gardening that celebrates and encourages wildlife diversity and the central place of invertebrates. These messages should be front and central in the work the society does in educating gardeners.

the beginning of our 'willow holt'
There’s life in the old goat willow. In a neglected corner of the garden, dozens of his progeny have arisen: seedlings that have become saplings. We don't have space for dozens of mature goat willows but can manage them. We've created a willow holt where the pollarded stems at different heights will explode in the spring with new shoots like a willow firework display, celebrating all those little munchers who come to enjoy our new creepy crawly kindergarten. 

Chris Baines told us in ‘How to make a wildlife garden’ three decades ago that we should see the success of our gardens by whether leaves in our garden plants had holes.. 

How long before the RHS judge their success using this simple measure?

Thursday, 9 November 2017

the autumn-gorgeous garden

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you."
Philip Larkin

These islands are home to a race of the white wagtail, a lovely black and white bird called the pied wagtail. Monochrome and small, it is commonly seen around buildings, feeding on invertebrates, flicking its tail and alerting us to its' presence with a simple, two note call. Here's what passes for a birdwatchers' joke: the pied wagtail is sometimes known as the Chiswick Flyover because it says 'Chiswick' as it flies over.

So, we're driving along the snaking Chiswick flyover during London's rush hour and our daughter points out that there are no pied wagtails in sight. I'd completely forgotten my own joke. She hadn't.
Sorry Sarah. Philip Larkin woz 'ere.

Juvenile male sparrowhawk
We were visiting Sarah's school and had parked in Kew beneath an ivy-clad tree, home to a roost of  ring-necked parakeets. Seeing foreign green parrots flying around London for the first time must have been wonderful and exotic. They are now a massive success story if the increasing population and range of an introduced and alien species can be seen as a success. They are the birds one sees and hears throughout the capital and they have arrived in Nottingham too, commonly seen in our Wollaton Park. My cousin sent a message saying they had six of the birds at their allotment this week. The BTO graph shows how their population has risen this year.

None yet seen here or regularly in Bestwood Country Park. They'll come.

When they do, they'll have to jostle. I was a little glum in my last post as the garden was so quiet. It is now as alive with birds as we can remember. Goldfinches, of course, are ubiquitous, gorging on the sunflower hearts - a kilogram is going into the 'Mother feeder' alone each day. Joining the goldfinches in discarding expensive seed onto the ground below are greenfinches and an occasional lesser redpoll. The redpoll has arrived earlier than in other years and we guess it is a bird we've caught here in previous years as it carries a little leg ring. Three tree sparrows joined the feasting tits at the drive feeders. They have the sparrow need of cover and nervously emerge from the close-cut privet hedge to take small seed.

The bird movement is mesmerising but probably serves a purpose. We regularly see kestrels and sparrowhawks - both hungry for small birds. The small birds demonstrate that it is hardest to hit a moving target. The sparrowhawk (photographed by Richard when we were netting at dusk on the farm last night) has the eyes of a killing machine. Seeing birds this close up is a rare privilege. The juvenile male sparrowhawk does not yet have the beauty it will achieve if it reaches adulthood.  Ringers look for diagnostic tiny beige-brown hearts on each of the young male birds' breast feathers. They are exquisite.

The garden is autumn-gorgeous just now. Many shades of yellow, through golds to amber and orange.

Time to harvest leaves! Leaves on the drive and Woodland Garden paths are raked across onto the beds. The worms will work without rest to pull them under ground and improve the soil structure. Leaves on the grass are being mown and stored to make leaf mould that will be ready to use in two years.

We are planning on bird ringing in the garden on Sunday, so I'm scattering seed along the places where the nets will be set. Perhaps the abundance of food explains the increased number of glossy black and querulous carrion crows we now have. They move through the pines, malevolent nazgull. Ten on the lawn on Monday. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

slow gardening

We worked through the rain, the three of us, asters above us glowing purple-blue from the water-washed prairie beds. The beds are at their bedraggled best now with hazes of golden grasses, the architectural stems of seeding Turkish sage and patches of sedum spectabile now claret-coloured in the autumn light.

The meadow around the pond is in its second, glorious year. During the spring it shone cerise and white with the flowers of red campion and oxeye daisy. During the summer, gatekeeper, small skipper and meadow brown butterflies feasted on ragwort and red clover nectar and five species of dragonfly hunted. The seed heads of wild carrot have now curled and browned and it is time to do some meadow management. We need a range of grass heights and must remove some of the vegetation each year to encourage floral diversity.
There is a school of thought that would see us shaving off all vegetation rather in the manner of an old hay meadow. This won’t do as small mammals, amphibians and invertebrates would be denied cover and a safe place over winter. There are a number of moths and butterflies that over-winter in grassland. Cutting the meadow removes the habitat for these hard-pressed creatures. Harvest mice are said to thrive best in a three-year old sward. The two juvenile kestrels (a sister and brother?) that patrol the garden and peer down at the meadow from their perching place need no help from us. A less draconian regime is needed. Something more gentle, more subtle.

Mike and I scythed five metre wide bands of the meadow down to a height of around 40-60mm and left connecting sections so that the inhabitants of the meadow can move between uncut sections safely. A bridgehead of cut grass was laid across the path from the meadow to give access to the pond. Jill barrowed the rest of the arisings away and left piles that will decay over winter and spring, providing potential shelter for hedgehogs, wrens and slow worms among others. 

I am glad that we scythed. Scything is a management tool that works with nature rather than blasting through it as mechanised methods can do. Scything enabled us to avoid frogs, to move aside caterpillars and moths and to discover and avoid what looked like a field vole ‘lawn’ in front of an entrance hole in the thick grass. Slow gardening.
Bramley apples

The busy kestrels may be the reason why we are seeing so few small birds on our feeders. Kestrels will take small birds and our little birds may be mindful of this when selecting their cafe of choice. We haven’t set the ringing nets in the garden for some time. Long overdue.

Mike didn’t seem so slow the following day. I had had a minor knee operation a couple of weeks ago and was milking it for all it was worth. As you’d expect we have a development plan for autumn 2017 to spring 2018. With Mike and his brush cutter scythe blade, development work for the next phase began promptly. The Head Gardener wanted another connecting path within the massed banks of bramble and rosebay willow herb that have flourished beneath the conifers. Mike set off with his scythe, through head-high jungle and single-handedly created our new wide path. I’m delighted to say that the path was christened overnight by an appreciative fox who left a nice pile of faeces as its calling card. 

There has been a silent congregation of miniature be-wigged judges on the lawn: a ‘bench’ of over a hundred shaggy inkcap toadstools. The fungus has lived in the soil beneath the lawn throughout the year, its mycelia interacting with the roots of the lawn plants improving the plants’ access to nutrients. In September and October the characteristic fruiting heads of the fungus appear above ground, giving us the shaggy lawn toadstools. Out of respect I delayed mowing until their moot ended with each withered to ink and I regretted it. There is little pleasure in mowing in October. To reduce the vigour of broad-leaved plants in the lawn, I raise the mower blades so that the grass is healthy and able to out-compete broad leaved weeds. But I had let the grass grow too long and it was too thick and clogged the mower. Observers from space would have seen the driver of a red ride-on mower gesturing angrily to the God of lawns, remonstrating at unsightly piles of disgorged grass cuttings that were following him on his journey to and fro.

We hear the distinctive bass ‘cronk’ of ravens frequently. 
Presumably they’re confused by the large black cuboid members of their family that have set up their territory with us. Our outbuildings were painted a corporate ecosote raven black during the summer when our WWOOF visitors joined us. Ravens have had success in expanding their populations from the west: they were once birds we only heard in the distant uplands during walks. Two of these huge black birds landed in the conifers by George’s Pond during the week.

Mike, cutting his way through the bramble jungle
During my convalescence, the Head Gardener set about de-weeding the Vegetable Garden. It now looks a picture. Field beans have been sown where potatoes thrived as this will be the legume bed for the 2018 growing season. Our use of copious quantities of manure and compost has enriched the soil powerfully - charging it with nutrients and weed seeds that we then battle to remove. I have another cubic metre of grass cuttings to incorporate into compost or use thinly as a mulch next week.
Another auction bargain

And now the apple season is with us. We’ve collected boxes and baskets of apples. I'd bid successfully on a lot of wicker baskets at the local auction. The Head Gardener is an auction sceptic borne from bitter experience. The broken and lop-sided chair I bought that gave me the appearance of Sir Steven Hawking is remembered at this time. But the baskets came in useful immediately. and were loaded with apples.

The windfalls will be peeled and frozen and the sound apples taken from the trees wrapped in magazine paper and stored in the polytunnel. We now have a slow juicer so that we can enjoy fresh apple juice. Utterly decadent!!

My 2019 plan is already shaping - I need a root cellar as used in the United States - to store root crops and apples.