Expect the unexpected………

Every garden has its daily wildlife – insects, birds or mammals that you tend to see on a regular, though seasonal, basis, and then the occasional more unusual visitor will pop up from time to time.  For me the thrill is always a new bird or butterfly, especially if it something that I have hardly ever seen well before.  A couple of weeks ago a female hawfinch appeared here, quietly feeding under a nyjer seed feeder close to the house.  The goldfinches have abandoned this area temporarily but there were still plenty of spilled seeds on the bare ground beneath.  So together with a couple of female chaffinches, my new visitor hopped nonchalantly about on the ground and the driveway of the house, picking up seeds, before flying off to another part of the garden.  Luckily my camera was at hand and I was able to get a few reasonable shots through the kitchen window.  This is a bird I have only ever seen in the tops of trees, so my garden ‘tick’ was even more exciting for that reason.  A visit to the Forest of Dean some years ago produced that tree-top glimpse but an up-close and personal view was wonderful.


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When the sun shines……

After such an optimistic couple of weeks around the garden, the last week (and several to come it seems) have changed the mood.  Cold weather, wind and torrential rain have made life difficult for a lot of the garden wildlife, especially the young birds that are now coming to feed.  Greenfinches, woodpeckers and tits are using the feeders but it is clear that these fledglings are struggling with the poor conditions and the best I can do is keep everything well topped up.  When the sun manages to break through the thick cloud and mist, we have dragonflies and damselflies around the ponds, common blue butterflies and a wall brown in the meadow and a good range of interesting beetles about.  One of my favourites is the Welsh chafer – much smaller than his more familiar ‘cockchafer’ cousins that batter the windows at night.  These chafers are iridescent green and brown and easy to photograph as they like to sit about on leaves in the sun – when there is any!  This as a great month to wander in the garden with a camera – as long as there isn’t a gale blowing.

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Beautiful by name, beautiful by nature……….

This is such an exciting time of year for our wildlife ponds.  Suddenly there are dragonflies and damselflies everywhere including a good number of Beautiful Demoiselles this year.  This graceful and colourful creature, with its transparent brown wings and bright turquoise body, immediately takes to the air around the garden and perches elegantly on the tops of the hedges or on our hawthorn blossom.  A careful search in the long grass around the Big Pond will reveal the abandoned larval shells of some of the larger Libellula dragonflies that wait a while to develop fully before taking to the wing. They can often be found in the early morning, still perched on their empty case.  Once these large species are on the wing, territorial jostling ensues.  Several species of small, bright blue damselflies are also emerging now and it takes a while for their colours to develop.  At this stage they are pale or transparent and I find it hard to identify them.  In all the ponds are very active in early summer and I love to take a minute to sit and watch the dragonflies prowling and swallows dipping down to drink from the still water surface.

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Unexpected visitor…..

Every time a new species of bird or butterfly appears here I quietly congratulate myself, even if technically it has nothing to do with how I have designed and maintained this garden!  Sometimes specific things do produce desired results – for instance it is unlikely we would have so many orange tip butterflies if I didn’t plant and encourage their larval food and nectar plants, but there are times when something turns up and I really have no reason to gloat.  This time last year a wheatear appeared on the garden hedge – clearly simply on migration, although I like to think that the fact there was a nice hedge for him to sit on had something to do with all my hard work.  This spring’s amazing visitor really was just passing through, although he did have a bit of a hunt for earthworms on the short grass.  Our handsome visitor was a male ring ouzel – a stunning bird that used to breed in Shropshire but now just passes through.  So far this has been a good spring for these eye-catching thrushes but having one in the garden was a thrill and an amazing garden tick, bringing the number of bird species seen in the garden to 70.

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Learning curve…..

A trip to the beautiful county of Devon, and to several amazing gardens full of wildlife, has once again made me think about the differences between our gardens depending on location.  The wonderful garden at Coleton Fishacre on the south Devon coast had peregrines, common lizards and grass snakes.  Rosemoor, the  RHSGarden near Bideford was awash with birds – blackcaps, robins, bullfinches and chiff chaffs, while the bird feeders there were buzzing with tits, finches and sparrows.  The garden where I spent most of my week however, had woodland birds galore in the tall oaks all around and it was good to see treecreepers, nuthatches and marsh tits, plus plenty of song thrushes on the lawns.  Most intriguing though were a pair of chaffinches which came daily to sit on the door handles and stare in at us!  Both also tapped on the glass!  I’m sure other holiday makers were less generous than we were with crumbs and other titbits, but this learnt behaviour certainly paid off in terms of extra food!

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Spring on hold…..

The last week of March, a week of hot summery weather, was wonderful if a little on the odd side!  Gardening in jeans and a T shirt instead of a warm fleece reminded me of how nice it is to be outside in the fresh air, listening to the chiffchaffs and watching the local hoard of buzzards soaring up into the sky on a thermal.  With primroses and daffodils in flower and orchid leaves appearing in the meadow, the whole garden had a very optimistic feel.  Now of course (this is the UK after all), it is snowing.  A couple of inches greeted me this morning and snow and sleet have continued to fall.  The bird feeders are buzzing while the nest boxes are forgotten for the time being.  And no doubt the two local chiffchaffs that have been singing so persistently around the garden will be lurking in the undergrowth somewhere, trying to keep warm.  Upsets in the weather are common at this time, but this year the exceptional hot weather has made this April ‘shower’ seem rather more drastic than usual.  Hopefully these conditions will pass quickly and spring will be back on track!

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Happy Toads………

It will soon be six years since I moved to Shropshire and five since the ‘Big Pond’ was created in the new part of the garden.  Back in Oxfordshire our wildlife pond was mostly home to a huge population of great crested newts – only very few frogs and no toads at all used the pond there for spawning.  There was no lack of toads around the garden but the presence of a large pond about 400 meters away that in March and April was a veritable orgy of spawning toads, meant that they were not interested in my little aquatic offering.  So the new pond here was created with toads in mind – deep water and plenty of vegetation to wrap their stringy black necklaces of spawn around.  And so I waited.  In the last five years the Big Pond has matured.  Toads are often found here under large stones and last year a pair was seen in ‘amplexus’ at the water’s edge, but no obvious spawn (or big fat tadpoles) seen.  This spring is different!  At last we have spawn in quantity and I look forward to the breeding population building up in our pond over time.

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Back home to The Crib…..

The first bumblebees of spring are always a delight.  These queens have spent the harsh winter months under the ground, usually in a small chamber which they excavate in the autumn, and they are awoken by a rise in temperature.  That such a small creature can remain safe through snow and ice in this way is a miracle in itself, but to emerge unscathed and looking ‘brand-new’ is even more surprising.  We are used to the tatty nature of the small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies that appear at this time, with torn wings and faded colours, but I always think that the first queen bumblebees look like they are back from a holiday in a nice warm climate!  The drone of a queen always makes me look up and marvel at the fact that they can fly at all.  At this time of year in my garden, there isn’t really a great deal for them in terms of nectar or pollen – only dandelions, but these serve the purpose well enough.  Her next task, after replenishing her energy stores, will be to seek out an old mouse nest to lay her eggs. 

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Iconic Spring Flowers…….

Although March can be a cold, windy month it can also dazzle us with spring light, birdsong and warmth – a real hint of things to come.  Plus of course we have the excitement of spring flowers bursting forth, and in my garden that means primroses.  When I arrived here six years ago a few flowers from a single primrose plant glowed from the tiny scrap of woodland that became a part of my garden.  The following spring I collected some of the tiny seedlings that had appeared beneath its leaves and gave them a helping hand – potted them up and later planted them back on the wooded bank that was originally their home, but also planted a few in other lightly shady spots around the garden.  That extra little survival boost made all the difference and this most iconic of all spring flowers spread and multiplied to create a carpet amongst the leaves of the bluebells that will soon follow.  With red campions and stitichwort burgeoning, there is lots to look forward to as spring advances.

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Frogs galore……

One of the great things about making a wildlife pond is that you know it is a habitat that will be used.  Sometimes a bird box can remain unoccupied for years or it may not be obvious that a log pile has regular inhabitants.  But ponds are different.  This year, the ‘new’ pond we made three years ago is absolutely heaving with frogs, mating and laying spawn.  This is not a big pond either.  The very large pond we made when we first arrived here is used by toads and newts which are happy with the deeper water, but the new pond is obviously perfect for frogs.   It’s brilliant to put in a little hard work and create something that is used so much and does the job it was designed for.  It’s also a magnet for finches looking for a drink, dragonflies and damselflies breed here, but it is now definitely our ‘frog’ pond.  Over the last few days it has been a boiling cauldron of activity and is full to the brim with spawn.

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