December 2014 – An ending and a new beginning.

We are in the dog days of December and until recently the weather has been very mild.   Now each morning we wake to a hard frost covering every surface with a fuzzy coat and freezing the water in the bird bath to a solid lump.  The geraniums are tucked up safe in their frost proof shelter but the winter violas have taken a hit.

frozen violas

Sad looking violas weighed down by the frost.

I started to write about my urban wildlife garden exactly two years ago and to be honest little has changed since that time.  The dwarf apple tree still has a couple of stubborn leaves which refuse to fall and the rose bush, confused by the early December warmth has thrown out a tentative bud or two.  The snails and slugs are in hibernation and the shed mice only emerge every few days, sleeping through the colder patches.  Only the birds remain seriously active as they visit the feeder station each morning, queuing in the branches of the bare apple tree.

Birds queuing in the tree.

Birds queuing in the tree.

In the last two years I have seen an explosion in the starling population, who visit on mass, squabble, feed and depart, leaving peace and quiet to return to the garden.  The pigeons are healthy and very few of them have crooked toes.  I was appalled feeding the pigeons at London Waterloo station to see how many of them had club feet and mangled toes.

I do believe we have the healthiest wildlife out here in the suburbs, away from the pesticides of the country and the indifference of the inner city.  Our urban foxes are beautiful because so many of us townies put out scraps to feed them.  I know I do and I am rewarded with the sight of them in my garden every evening, with their white faces looking up anxiously at the window to see if it is safe to take the food; always cautious.  They have their own social order and when the Alpha fox arrives no-one else gets a look in.  The younger foxes cow down in the street and wait their turn.  The big Alpha male, looking more like a sleek wolf than a fox, eats uninterrupted but knows when to stop.  As he slides out of the garden with a flick of his white-tipped tail I can see that he has left food in both trays for the younger ones to enjoy.  They squeeze through the gate together and chase the trays around the garden licking up every morsel.  So why would a wild animal not take all the food, is that a sign of compassion?  I know that we ridicule any suggestion that animals might have human traits, but that is just so that we can continue to hunt them and treat them appallingly in the false belief that they have no emotional connection.

Beautiful urban fox but not in my garden unfortunately.

Beautiful urban fox but not in my garden unfortunately.

So two years on and nothing much has changed but it’s all going to be very different soon.  Behind our garden wall there will be a new development of high rise flats and houses.  I will look out of my window to see the side wall of a block of flats two and a half stories high.  Hopefully, the trees to the left hand side will remain but the view into the distance will be a thing of the past.  This is how it is for urban dwellers.  We are being more densely packed into the space as larger houses are knocked down and an estate of smaller properties is built in its place.  More houses, more people, more cars, less grass and fewer trees.   Nature, I’m sure will survive.  Nature always does as it has the power to adapt.  I’m not so sure about myself.  As I get older my powers of adaptation have weakened and of course, I have the memories of how it used to be.  Any new tenant in this house will never know a view different to a brick wall.  They won’t look out wistfully and remember what it was like to see the sun rise on a winter morning spreading a red glow across the frozen horizon.   But the one thing you can be certain of is that everything changes and I guess I will have to change as well.

Present view from the house.  The roof tops in the distance will come down to be replaced by a block of flats immediately behind our shed.

Present view from the house. The roof tops in the distance will come down to be replaced by a block of flats immediately behind our shed.

What is clear is that there is even more reason to maintain a safe haven for wildlife in my increasingly crowded urban environment.  More people could also mean more bird feeders and more scraps for the foxes if we take a bit of time and trouble.  It’s not all bad.  I will continue to put out my mealworm, juicy fat balls and high quality seed and it will be interesting to see how the wildlife adapts to the new bricks and mortar when it arrives.

As the old year meets the new year and modern life crowds in around me.  I take my leave from this blog.  Thank you for joining me in my urban wildlife garden over the last two years.  I have enjoyed sharing with you stories of the many creatures who find my tiny, paved garden to be a wildlife oasis.  As we all learn to get along together in an increasingly crowded world it is important that we leave some space for diversity and take a bit of time to protect and enjoy the wildlife on our doorstep.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

November 2014 – famine and feast.

We had a bit of a disaster on the mealworm front.  I ordered two bags of mealworm over a month ago and put the heavier of the bags away in the log shed for later.  As the first bag slowly emptied I didn’t rush to order more, knowing of the stash I had put aside.  Finally, the day came when I cut into the new bag to reveal 5kg of biological washing powder instead of 5kg of mealworm.  No good to me or the starlings.

I tried to make up for the deficit by putting out extra suet pellets, but those starlings weren’t fooled.  They looked all around to see what I had done with the mealworm;  the lovely, crunchy stuff.  They perched on the empty feeder, looking round at the house in a pitying manner.   When it was obvious that none would appear they flew off in disgust.  I noticed they came back later in the day to see if I’d found any, but of course the cupboard was still bare.  I took the empty feeder in the next day rather than go through the whole charade again on the pretext of giving it a good wash.

The weather is still warm and it is mid-November.  The flowers are in bloom and some of the spring bulbs have made an early entrance.   They will get a nasty shock when the eventual cold November winds blow in.  Usually by this time I have all the geraniums tucked up in their winter shelter, but we haven’t even bothered to get the cover down from the loft yet.  The weather will probably take a turn and catch us all out.

2014-11-16 10.54.39

2014-11-16 10.54.48

There was an unexpected side effect to the mealworm famine.  The small birds took advantage of the fact that the starlings were not constantly squabbling at the feeder station.  I saw a great tit and a couple of sparrows visit the garden.  I haven’t seen the sparrows since the hedge came down.  Just like teenage students, you don’t see them for months on end, then they come home uninvited and expect to find food on the table. Mind you there has been plenty of natural food with this extraordinarily mild start to winter.  I’ve seen striped buzzing things still visiting my open blooms, so there must be plenty of flies to eat. I even saw a butterfly on the wing. Most of the mozzies from the accidental pond have gone off in search of flesh.  Only the blood worms remain; wriggling at the bottom of the tray never turning into anything other than bigger blood worms.

bee on flower

 

Then the new bag of mealworm arrived and it was like the relief of Mafficking as the starlings descended on it.  I’m wondering whether to ration them so that the food has all gone by early morning and restore a bit of the previous peace and quiet to the garden.  During a lull in feeding yesterday I saw a cockatiel land on the fence and check out the feeders.  They fly overhead in great numbers as dusk falls.  They gather in a nearby tree and responding to some secret signal take off on mass, momentarily blackening the skies.

Hard times have hit the household since I lost my job.  I’m afraid we are all tightening our belts and that includes the wildlife.  I’ve been shopping around for cheaper fat balls.  After some complicated maths I worked out that the chunky dumplings, luscious though they are, cost me 41p a go.  Our pet shop has 35 (identical looking) fat balls for £6.99, halving the price.  The on-line mealworm is still the cheapest (when it isn’t soap powder) but I will have to put less out each day.  I find my small eco crisis fits neatly with world events.  Individually we may or may not be interested in politics, but none of us can live in the world and not be affected by political decisions.  In the UK the government is gradually moving money from the public sector into the private sector.  Consequently, my job got contracted out over the summer.  The new contractors set different qualification standards and bingo, I’m out of a job.  Then of course I cut back to save money and contribute to a shrinking economy.  Today I heard on the radio that the UK could be heading for another recession and I know why.  Because people like me aren’t able to buy fat balls and meal worm and all the other things which keep the economy moving.  So far the cats are safe, though Sooty costs me a fortune in cat litter since she developed a sensitive bladder.  She must visit her tray 3 or 4 times a day, poor old girl.

2013-10-22 10.28.54

The pigeons looked confused yesterday when the seed I put down ran out too quickly.  I had reduced their portion, in line with the fiscal plan, by two handfuls of seed, a 20% reduction.  They walked round in circles for some time looking for the missing seed.  They may not be able to count, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any idea of quantity.  I guess they will adjust.  We will all have to. There are berries out on the bushes which grow against the alley wall.  I have seen the pigeons pulling them off with sharp tugs of their beaks.  Berries are good and berries are free.  Perhaps the answer to my problem is to grow more food providing plants and let them ‘pick their own’.  Let’s face it the more food I put out the more babies they will have next spring.  This year they all managed to have a double brood and brought the fledglings straight to my garden before abandoning them to fend for themselves.  My urban garden has become a source of sustenance for quite a few creatures in the local area.  What happens to them if the seed dries up?  Interfering with nature is a dangerous business.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

October 2014 – It’s not easy being a mosquito.

First your mother abandons you in any pool of water she happens to come across.  This could be a large quantity such as a pond or swimming pool, or a tiny slither of rainwater collected in an upturned bin lid.  The first lottery of life for a mosquito is whether the body of water you find yourself in is able to sustain your many phases of growth.  The chances are that your particular pool will evaporate leaving you high and dry, or a tidy human will tip your home straight down the drain once they see you and your wriggly companions swimming around.

My bird bath became the habitat to mosquito eggs over the summer and fortunately for these particular mossies I tipped them out into the accidental pond and provided them with some weed to oxygenate the water.  So far so good.

Accidental pond with the weed.

Accidental pond with the weed.

If you manage to find yourself in a plentiful supply of undisturbed water you then you will need to shed your skin several times during the lava stage as nature didn’t know about stretch Lycra.  Shedding one’s skin is always a dangerous occupation, as predators will strike when you have your proverbial pants down.  I have watched the wigglers in my accidental pond gyrate from side to side in an attempt to detach themselves from their unwanted skin.  Imagine a large lady removing a tight girdle and you will get the picture.  On closer inspection I noticed several of these discarded skin cases floating on the water.  No doubt in nature this provides sustenance for some other creature as nothing is ever wasted.

wigglers and dead skin

Wigglers and empty skin cases floating in the water.

The wigglers sit up at the surface of the water and breath air through a small tube like a snorkel.  If you lean too far over the surface or disturb them in any way, they dive to the bottom, but soon have to float back to the top, presumably unable to hold their breath any longer.  When the accidental pond was full of wigglers this constant to-ing and fro-ing gave the impression of a 70s style lava lamp.

So if you are fortunate enough to be laid in a suitable pool of water, not be tipped out by a tidy human and discard several skins without being eaten, then you are ready to turn into a pupa.  The ‘wigglers’ turn into ‘tumblers’ who now have two breathing tubes called ‘trumpets’.  They spend most of their day floating at the surface but can also dive out of danger if need be.  The tumbler stage lasts a relatively short time and within four days they have encased themselves in order to turn into adult mosquitoes.

I looked hard into the water in order to see these pupa cases but failed to identify any of them.  If I had the patience of a wildlife camera man I would have sat there for hours until one of them hatched out, but I didn’t.  Instead I just took a quick peek here and there as I hung out the washing or fed the birds.  On my random visits to the accidental pond, I noticed that there were often adult mosquitoes floating dead on the surface of the water.  At first I though these were brave parents sacrificing themselves in order to give their offspring a chance, but then I realised that it was most probably the newly hatched adults unable to escape from a watery grave.

At this point I finally looked up the life cycle of the mosquito and realised that when they emerged from their pupa case they needed to climb somewhere safe while their external skeleton and wings hardened.  Having survived so many stages, many of my guys were falling at the final hurdle.  The problem was that the tray was too deep and they had nothing but the steep sides to cling to.  In order to give them a bit of a chance I tipped them out into a shallow tray and placed stones around the sides.  Immediately, the number of drowned adults decreased as the emerging mosquitoes were able to climb onto a safe stone while they waited for a blow dry.

Shallow tray with stones

Shallow tray with stones

All was fine until it started to rain and the try filled with water submerging the stones.   I took to bailing out the water, being very careful not to dispose of any wigglers in the process.  Unable to keep up this level of attention I put the tray under the garden table; protected from rain showers, but now an ideal drinking bowl for the cat.

Once fully dry the mosquito is able to take to the air.  If male they live only long enough to mate, if female they live for many days to weeks and suck blood in order to feed their eggs before laying them.  You will be pleased to hear that having survived such an ordeal, they can lay more than one batch of eggs.

Adult mosquito on side of the tray.

Adult mosquito on side of the tray.

But your life lottery does not end when you finally earn your wings, these females will probably be zapped, sprayed or squashed in their effort to find the essential blood for the next generation.  So next time you absent mindedly slap a mossie dead on your arm have a little respect for the enormously difficult journey she had to get that far.

My own mosquitoes, who fell into the lap of luxury, have nearly all morphed into adult form now.  An exceptionally warm autumn has enabled them to continue their journey into adulthood throughout October.  Most have left the accidental pond to make their way in the world and hopefully at least some of them will have become parents in their own right before succumbing to their final demise.  So if you think that your life is tough, bear in mind that it’s not easy being a mosquito.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

September 2014 – Home and Away

Late August and the garden was at its best.  A wide range of bushes provided succour for bees and butterflies alike, small birds such as great tits and robins were regular visitors to their starling proof feeders and a large group of sparrows had taken to sitting in the hedge which grew against the back alley wall and leaned over onto our garden shed.  Just before we went on holiday I asked my husband Bob to trim the hedge back a little, as I was having trouble opening the shed door to get my bike out.  ‘Keep the height though’, I told him as I left him to get on with it.

bee on flower bees on plants white butterfly

Like a logger in the Amazon rainforest he took to his work and was not defeated until he had cut a great swath of hedge completely from the wall.  This scar of bare brick with wilting leaves clinging on all sides greeted me when I went back to check on progress.  I had clearly been away too long.  ‘It was all connected together’, was his only excuse, as if he expected it to be otherwise.  The parts that were still hanging onto the upper part of the wall were surely going to fall and die, as their lower branches had been sawn clean through.  As I look out of the window now, a month later, I can still see these brown, twisted branches perched precariously on the top of the wall, as if they had been struck by lightening.  Needless to say the sparrows haven’t returned, but I must admit it is easier to get my bike out.

WALL

Leaving the carnage behind us we headed off to the States, to check out their urban wildlife.  We started our journey in New Hampshire and the first critter we met was the rather nippy chipmunk who wasn’t up to posing for photographs.  They scampered under the beach huts down at Winnipesaukee lake and fed on left over BBQ.  At the nearby wildlife centre we had a talk about Coyotes and it turns out they are North America’s urban foxes.  Taking advantage of the demise of the wolf, the coyote has spread far and wide across the northern states.  They are not fussy eaters and have adapted well to urban environments, consuming fast food, dustbin scraps and possible the odd chipmunk or two.

coyote11

We didn’t see a whole lot of birds while we were at the lake but the best was yet to come.  When we arrived at our beach hut on Cape Cod we had a few surprises in store.  The first surprise was that it wasn’t on the beach, but on the edge of the main highway through Cape Cod.  As we sat outside, relaxing in our hammock, we could listen to the rhythmic sounds of traffic instead of the soft lull of the sea.  However, the other surprise was a real bonus.  The owners of this property were avid bird feeders.  At every window of their house they had placed a number of feeders providing all sorts of seeds and nectar.  As I sat that first evening I saw a woodpecker, large numbers of chaffinches, all kinds of tits and the spectacular hummingbird.   I had arrived in bird heaven.

birds on woodpecker

The hummingbird is pure science fiction.  It hovers directly in front of you like a shimmering mirage.  Then as you try to focus your eyes, it instantly moves  into warp speed and vanishes.  They were able to dive between the other birds like jet fighter pilots, stopping only to refuel at the specially designed pit stop.

hummingbird

In the mornings I was up early, still in UK time, and would take a cup of tea out onto the porch to watch the dawn break.  As the sun inched up into the sky it gave the signal for flocks of roosting birds to make their journey to work.  They would gather in the tall trees at the bottom of the garden.  At the chosen moment a mass of birds would take off, filling the sky with synchronised movement like a psychedelic kaleidoscope.  It was mesmerising.  One morning as I watched them take to the skies I noticed another group of birds from the corner of my eye, who had decided to head for the opposite beach.  I felt a moments anxiety as these flight paths converged but they crossed shared air space with the military precision of a marching band.

Cape Cod also provided us with the aquatic acrobatics of native whales.  These majestic creatures came right up beside the boat as soon as we cut the engines.  You first see the blow hole of the humpback whale, followed by the graceful curve of its back and finally the flip of its fluke.  We all gasped as this splashed down into the water beside us, but as our guide pointed out, ‘You know what it means when you see the whale’s tail?’  ‘It means it’s gone’.  And he was right of course.  They only flip their tails when they make their deep descent and then the chase was on to track the pod for the next resurface. There were a few boats about that day and they all gave the tip off as soon as they saw the water spout.  As the first boat turned we all slipped back into gear and sped along to the new location, just in time to see the rhythmic rise and fall of the humpbacks at sea.

whale back whale

We saw quite a few other native species while we were in the States, though these would not be classed as ‘urban’.  These included bison, bobcat, moose, brown bears and raccoons.  We saw all of these creatures in nature reserves and sooner or later these protected reserves will be our only source of wildlife, plus of  course all the wildlife which has come to live with us in the city.

bison bob cat moose new brown bear racoon

Now it was time to return home to our own urban wildlife; two cats, garden birds, wiggly things in the accidental pond and the garden shed mice.  On our return all was quiet.  The feeders had been picked bare and I had lost my regular customers to pastures new.  Not even a single pigeon was on the roof.  Before I even unpacked my case I cleaned everything up and washed out the frothy green bird bowl which had become the host to a large number of mosquito lava.  I tipped these into the accidental pond, to join the others and filled it with fresh, clear water.

The pigeons were the first to return.  Just a few to start with, but word soon got round.  Then the starlings came back; all now in their adult vests of speckled black and white.  No more baby starlings here.  Their new found maturity didn’t stop them squabbling at the fat ball feeder though.  Finally, after nearly a week I saw my first small bird, a great tit that was closely followed by another one, possibly the female.  They didn’t stay long however, disturbed by the juvenile behaviour of the starlings.  The robin was the first to stay and feed.  Heralding its arrival with the steady peep peep, ‘here I come’.   I have yet to see any sparrows.  No doubt they are still upset by the massacre of the hedge and I can share their pain.  They can’t be far away though and as these sunny days of abundance turn into cold winter scarcity, they will be back to feast once again on the finest fat ball in Surrey, hedge or no hedge.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

August 2014 – Out foxed.

For some time now I have been feeding our urban foxes kitchen scraps.  Well if you count prime dog meat, dental biscuits and the occasional pig’s ears as scraps.  I know the foxes are out there every night scavenging rather than hunting, just thought I would help them out a bit.

I put the food outside the front door in an old metal tray (they steal the dishes) and in the morning I bring it in, licked clean.  I have no idea who eats it, whether it is a fox or a neighbour’s cat or just voracious garden slugs.  So with the new infra-red camera I decided to lay a trap and capture the midnight diners.

I began my plan by moving the food dish towards the gate where I could see it from the window.  Then for a couple of nights I left the front door lamp on so they would get used to eating in the glare of the spotlight.  Finally, I was ready to set up the camera and managed to get it to balance on the inside of the small open window.  I was ready for action.

That night as I put the food out by the gate a slug the size of a Zeppelin and a snail set off at a steady pace to tuck in.   It had taken longer for these guys to adjust to the new feeding position and they still hung around by the front door.  Timing was of the essence here.  If they arrived at the same time as the fox, they could find themselves on the menu.  I am sure there must have been some casualties among the molluscs in this shared dining arrangement.   I set the camera to flash when detecting movement and went off to bed.

In the morning the food dish was empty; licked clean and ready for more.  I was keen to see who had enjoyed the evening meal so took the disk out and put it straight into the computer.  There were pictures of the tray full of food and the hanging basket blowing in the wind which must have set the camera off.  More pictures of the food in the tray, then at last the nose of a fox peering round the corner and looking into the dish.  I moved on quickly to the next picture expecting to see the fox tucking in only to see a now empty dish.  I wondered how the fox had managed to eat without setting the camera off.  Did he have an accomplice who held his paws over the lens in the style of a Tom Cruise film, or had he moved in slow motion to outwit the sensor?

My beautiful picture

Food in the dish

My beautiful picture

No food and no dish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next night it was apparent that the fox was spooked by the camera flash as it started to pull the tray out of the front garden and into the road.   The camera caught pictures of the tray full, then many pictures of no tray at all.  Never a single shot of the fox in action.  Determined to get my evidence I decided to close the garden gate.  Now they would have to lift the tray up and over the wall.  I positioned the camera again and watched to see what would happen from a safe hideaway behind the front room curtains.  My regular routine of putting the food out immediately after the news at ten was starting to deliver results.  The foxes had adjusted their body clocks and I didn’t have long to wait.  The camera poised above me took not a shot of the fox arriving and poking his nose through the bars of the closed gate.  The fox only had to push at it and it would have opened as there is no catch.  The camera didn’t get a single shot of the fox as he jumped with ease over the garden wall and started to cram down the food.  All the time the fox was looking this way and that, eyes and ears alert.   Then suddenly the flash went off and the fox lifted the tray right over the wall as he sprang to safety, spilling the food across the pavement.

 

Fox eating

Fox eating with gate closed.

 

Fox wondering what's going on with all the flashing.

Fox wondering what’s going on with all the flashing.

It felt mean to put the foxes through the ordeal of the flashing camera.  They were very timid and their whole body was tense, not good for your digestion I thought.   As the foxes had become accustomed to the feeding time I decided to just watch them from the window.  As 10.30 came round the food went out.  Then I turned out the lights at the front of the house and took up my position behind the curtains.  I left the gate open now, so that they felt more comfortable.  Within a short time a young fox would arrive and gollop down everything he could in one go.  If a car went passed or someone walked down the other side of the street, the fox would be gone; slipping silently back into the night.

I soon realised that it wasn’t always the same fox, though all the foxes who came seemed young, less than a year old.  They would arrive at the gate and take a moment to look and sniff to check that all was safe.  They would often look right up at me peeking out from behind the curtains.  They knew from the scent of me that I was there even though I was as still as a rock.  A wild animal always has to evaluate the risk of finding food.  Too cautious and you miss out, too daring and you get eaten yourself.  How fortunate we are to share our food with others in lingering evening meals over a glass of wine.  Virtually every other creature knows that as it tucks into supper one night it could be on the menu the next.

One evening I was visited by a group of foxes, who decided to pull the tray out into the middle of the road as a sharing plate.  As one ate the others hung back.  There was a clear pecking order, though they all looked to be the same age and size.  But the first left food for the second and this in turn left food for the third.  Then off they went leaving the tray behind in the middle of the road.  I decided to fetch it in before I went to bed.  It’s best to keep this type of activity low key in urban areas.  As I picked the tray up I thought I saw a piece of meat left in the corner, but it turned out to be a snail, cleaning up the scraps.  I put the tray down by the front door so it could finish off and as I went inside a car pulled up directly over the spot where the tray had been.  I had saved a life.

Me in my dressing gown saving a life.

Me in my dressing gown saving a life.

The routine continued and I tried to keep to the schedule.  Each night, after the news, the food went out and one night Sooty went out with it.  She is not an adventurous cat and prefers to stay home, but on a summer’s evening, she likes to check things out.  She followed me out into the front garden.  Sniffed round the tray but didn’t touch the food, then sat down on the doormat to take in the air.  While I waited for her to come back in, I sat down on the settee watching her through the open front door.   The night was quiet, not a car or a person to interrupt the stillness, then from out of the inky blackness the face of a fox appeared.  It looked straight at Sooty, then up at me.   Not sure who was most surprised.  I kept still.  We all looked at each other for a few moments wondering who would make the first move, then the fox decided to tuck in before anyone else arrived.  I could hear the crunching of the biscuits as the fox rapidly devoured the food.  He kept one foot up, poised ready to run and his ears were sharp and upright, turning this way and that.  Without stopping to lick the plate he took his leave and the black of the night reclaimed his space.

I would not encourage any wild animal, fox or otherwise to enter the house.  We all need to keep our boundaries.  But seeing this wild creature up so close was a magical moment.  Our urban foxes are quite rightly timid and wary of people and that is just how it should be.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

July 2014 – starling explosion.

The starling parents took advantage of the warm weather and decided to have another brood.  Just as the first lot began to leave the garden for pastures new the next batch arrived all fluttering wings and open beaks.  On occasions the combined quantity makes for a starling explosion at the feeding station.  There is much squabbling and squalling as they vie for the best place at the fat ball or argue over the mealworm.  I rarely see the parents now.  Once their feeding duty is done they go to quieter domains for their sustenance, but the babies, knowing nothing else, hang around all day, long after the food has disappeared.

crazy time at the feeding station

crazy time at the feeding station

A couple of them had distinctive features so I could tell how much time they spent in the garden.  One had a single white tail feather like an artist’s paintbrush and he spent many a happy hour searching the rockery for missed morsels.  The other was continually sneezing, so drew my attention even when I was in the house.  He would sit in the branches of the tree sneezing and shaking his head.  He must have been born with a blockage in his beak and I wondered if I would be able to catch him and take him to the vet.  Vets will treat wild animals for free or send you off to the wildlife sanctuary if they can’t be bothered.  Although I would be trapping Sneezy for with the best of intentions, I didn’t think he would see it like that.

Both starlings were in the first batch of offspring and I haven’t seen Picasso for quite a time.  Sneezy would come everyday and hang around, but is now just an occasional visitor who is difficult to ignore.   One young chap hung round for a couple of days hiding in the undergrowth rather than flying off, but eventually he took to his wings.  I am guessing from their behaviour that my garden is used much like a nursery and once the fledglings find their feet they start to forage further afield.  That is a relief for I would hate to come back from holiday and find a row of emaciated starlings sitting expectantly on my garden fence.

So tame I could almost pick him up.

So tame I could almost pick him up.

 

 

The baby starlings have really taken to the bird bath in a way that has never appealed to their parents.  They lounge about in there like Romans in a spa, chatting, bathing and sipping from the fresh spring waters.  Well it starts off as fresh water, but the birds have no respect for hygiene and it soon fills with fat, caterpillar like deposits.  These bake hard on the central stone or float about in the water.  But everything suits someone in nature’s grand plan and I noticed that the flies choose to sit on the warm stone and sup from the sweet nectar of dried guano. The flies often spend time here rubbing their front legs together then rubbing their back legs together as they look out across the water.  Mesmerised by the sparkle and shimmer some deicide to go for a swim.  This is never a good idea for they are not built for aquatic activity.  They flail around for a while then give in to their fate and float passively on the surface.   If I spot them in time I give them a leaf raft on which to clamber and dry off their wings.  If I put them back onto the stone then invariably I have to fish them out the water again a few minutes later, so I put them at a safe distance and hope that they have the good sense not to return.

Fly contemplating a swim.

Fly contemplating a swim.

Flies are not known for having a great deal of sense and tend to blunder their way through life.  They continually get into the doughnut bird feeder, presumably tempted by the aroma of suet pellets.  Once inside it is a one-way street as they can never make it back out through the small feeding hole.  I see them whizzing around in there like it’s a snow dome.  Every evening when I water the garden I unscrew the top and set them free.  Some shoot straight out with a great sense of relief, but others continue to fly around like everything is cool.  Eventually, like the last guests at a party, they fetch their coats and make for the exit.

There is every possibility that we will soon have enough starlings to enact the first murmur to been seen in the suburbs of Surrey for some time.   It could make a news item, I mused, as I looked up into our neighbour’s tree and noticed that the sparrows were at it as well; creating a second brood right in front of my eyes.  The female sat on the branch and flapped her wings in an enticing manner.  The male didn’t need too much encouragement and promptly did his duty.  I wondered if at any point he considered the onerous feeding schedule that was about to descend on him for the second time this year. It appeared not.  Afterwards he moved up onto a higher branch and looked out contemplatively to the horizon beyond.  He was possibly just looking the other way while the female adjusted her feathers.  Then they both played hide and seek in a near by bush.  Bit late for foreplay I thought, but perhaps this is how it is in the bird kingdom.

It is great to see the sparrows back.  I have lived here for thirteen years and these are the first sparrows to visit regularly.  They have already doubled their numbers with their first brood and now we can look forward to a new set of offspring being introduced to the garden in the near future.  Wonderful stuff and hopefully, my feeding station has played a useful role.

Can you see the bird box in this bush? No, neither can the birds.

Can you see the bird box in this bush? No, neither can the birds.

 

We have put a weather proof, predator proof bird box in a secluded place on the garden fence in the hope that some of these small birds will decide to nest there.  It could be too much of a hidden secret right now, as it is totally obscured by the twisted willow.  How will they ever find it?  In the winter when the leaves have fallen the nest box will be visible, but is that when the birds are out house hunting?   I can hardly put a ‘for rent’ sign out.  Patience is what’s needed here, patience and time.  It wasn’t so long ago that I was saying that the birds would never come to my tiny patio garden and now I have a starling explosion.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

June 2014 – make do and mend.

There is a snail under a cup in my back garden.  Well, technically it is in the snail hospital isolation unit.  My husband was crashing around in the garden sorting out rubbish to take to the dump.  Like most humans, he simply got on with the job and didn’t think twice about the snails who had taken advantage of the new habitat provided by some old panels from our bathroom.  They were snuggled up between the folds of rubbish when, without warning, they were hoisted aloft and dragged out to the waiting car.

As I arrived on the scene I noticed a couple of casualties with broken shells and picked them up gently trying not to damage their fragile bodies further.   Once these were back in the garden I searched through the remaining rubbish finding another five or so who had survived in tact. As I brought these back to the garden I noticed that the two injured snails were wandering about  with their broken shells gradually falling away behind them like the dance of the seven veils.   It seemed a shame that although the snails themselves were fine, without a shell they were basically just meals on wheels.  So I wondered if I protected the snails would they be able to mend their own shells and survive.  Shells are after all living organisms which are able to grow with the snail over time.  So if they can grow, can they also mend?

Hospital isolation unit

Hospital isolation unit

I found the nearest thing to hand to protect the snails and put them both under a large cup with a couple of lettuce leaves for sustenance.  The next morning the little one had gone.  A small section of his shell remained under the cup and I figured he had either discharged himself or got eaten, probably the latter.  The isolation unit was not so isolated after all.  I moved the remaining snail, which was by now just a naked, jelly blob, to a completely different part of the garden where no slugs were present.  I knew he was vulnerable, so I decided to improve the snail hospital accommodation with a sense of urgency.  I found a cutlery tray which had holes in the bottom and filled that with damp soil, in case he wanted to bury himself during the recovery process.  I put this inside the old ‘accidental pond’ tray and put some stones inside for hiding behind and some food; lettuce and celery.   I found in a charity shop an elastic cover for baby prams with small holes, which would keep the predators out but let the air in.  The new improved snail hospital was finally ready.

New improved snail hospital

New improved snail hospital

 

I lifted the cup to find that an enormous slug with Houdini like skill had managed to slide himself under the lip and was now tucking into the snail with gusto.  It was too late to save the patient and to be honest  I had wondered whether this poor naked snail could ever make a shell from nothing; so I allowed nature’s recycling system to take its course.  The slug was so enormous by the time it had finished he sat in the lavender pot for some time looking not unlike Jabba the Hutt.

Jabba the hutt

Jabba the hutt

 

So here I was with a fully functioning snail hospital and no patients.  Then, as luck would have it I found a small snail with a cracked shell lying close to the back door.  With this casualty it was possible to push the parts of his shell back together quite easily, so I felt sure that he would make a full recovery.  I admitted him as an in-patient and put him down in the soft soil for comfort.  He immediately decided to climb out, so for his own good I put on the stretchy cover and left him out in the garden.

The next morning I had trouble finding the snail.  He wasn’t in the soft soil, or behind the stone.  Some of the lettuce had been eaten, which was a good sign.  Then I saw him curled up in a small dip at the top of the tray, in what must have felt like a secure spot.  He stayed there for a couple more days and I didn’t want to pick him up in case I broke his shell again.  Looking closely I could see that the cracks were starting to mend.  After four days I decided to lift the lid and let him take his chances.  Just as well I did because that night we had a rainstorm and the hospital was flooded.  The dip at the top of the tray was awash with rain water and no snail would of survived that.  I tipped out all the water and looked for him, but he was gone.  The clever guy obviously bailed out and hopefully with a fully functioning shell, but I will never know for sure.

Small shell in the lip of the tray.

Small shell in the lip of the tray.

 

As one patient is discharged so another arrives.  Putting the bins out I found a new invalid; damaged by the rough handling of the wheely-bin, no doubt.   He was a large chap with a cracked shell and he was clinging to a leaf.  I popped him into the hospital to recover with a piece of fresh lettuce.  He has been there a week now and not moved a lot.  He doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite either.  He has just curled up on the soft soil and gone into a self-induced coma.  Either that or he is dead.  Is it possible to check the pulse of a snail?  I am giving him the benefit of the doubt and check on him on a daily basis.  So far the shell looks no different.  The jagged edges have not fused together but stick out at angles like a snapped twig.   Am I just prolonging his agony and denying a slug his due sustenance?

Today when I checked on the snail a fly flew out from under the protective cover.  An ominous sign I thought and sure enough round the edges of the shell I could see fine, white mould seeping out.  My snail had passed away.  The snail hospital doesn’t have a very good mortality rate so far with three of my four patients deceased.  Not to worry though, I took the dead snail and tipped it out into the maggot sanctuary.  Mother Nature’s not the only one who knows how to make do and mend.

Deceased snail

Deceased snail

Posted in Environment, Human interest, Nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

May 2014 – If only birds had pockets

I’ve been watching the starling parents fly back and forth with tiny beaks crammed full of mealworm.  Just enough to pop into one hungry mouth I would guess and then they are back again and off again and back again; like trying to fill a jug with a pipette.  If only birds had pockets they could return to the nest and pose like Fagin while all the little chaps rummaged through their under wing compartments to claim a prize.   The crows don’t have pockets either, but they do appear to have beaks like an expanding suitcase. They can cram and cram some more in their attempt to carry off the swag. Guess they have bigger mouths to feed when they get back home.

two baby starlings and a parent

baby starlings wait expectantly

After a few weeks the starling chicks become mobile and follow mum and dad to the best little restaurant in town.  This makes things a whole lot easier.  The starling babies sit in patient rows along the fence or on top of the shed while the parents raid the feeders below.  They return to their own chicks and drop the food inside a gaping beak before instantly returning for more.  The food doesn’t even touch the sides, straight down and ready to go.  I noticed that when the parents returned with a few mealworm or tasty fat ball pieces they took the time to find their own offspring. They would call between clenched beaks until they locate their own little hatchling; while the babies are not nearly so fussy and approach any adult bearing food.  I suppose your DNA survival depends on you bringing your own brood into adulthood, so that they in turn can mate, whereas from a youngster’s point of view all food is good food.

The morning is bedlam, a commuter rush of early feeders all jostling for a space at the table.  By the afternoon the pace has slowed, but the fat balls are just melted snowballs and the seed feeders have been picked bare.  Around this time the small birds arrive, the blue tits, great tits, robins and sparrows.   They are not good in the cut and thrust of competitive eating.  They prefer to take their time, check out the buffet and wipe their beaks along the branches of the tree, much in the way you might polish your cutlery before enjoying a meal.  The only problem with slow and steady is that it doesn’t win the day.  Virtually all the food has gone and they are forced to pick tiny scraps from the bars of the fat ball feeders.  Consequently they don’t stay in the garden for long.

commuter rush at the feeding station

commuter rush at the feeding station

I have tried all kinds of small feeders to stop the starlings and crows from cleaning up.  Teensy dishes and doughnut feeders with tiny claw grips, but the big guys soon learn to feed by hanging from the sides, supporting themselves with humming bird style wing flaps.  If I went out in the early afternoon to top up the trays, the other birds seemed instantly to know and back they would all swoop for afters.  Then I hit on the idea of using the cage.  I had a cage feeder in the shed which had been universally shunned, but I decided to try it again with insect embedded suet pellets and a mealworm combo.  I knew that the small birds were feeding young and would appreciate a protein hit like this.  Bingo – it worked.  The blue tit was the first to venture in.  Sheer bravado or possibly sheer hunger took him straight through the bars of the cage to take his pick.  The sparrow was the next to try, but held onto the outside bars of the cage and just poked his head inside at first.  Going into a cage must be daunting, no matter how tasty the treats on offer.  Over the next few days they all became more confident, the robin being the last to get the hang of it.  I put the cage feeders well away from the bustle of the main feeding station.  The small birds could come and go now without the obstruction of a starling or crow to navigate.  I saw the sparrow family feeding their young and the blue tits also brought off-spring, one chick at a time.

when it all goes quiet the sparrow drops in

when it all goes quiet the sparrow drops in

Fired up by my success I decided to get a caged fat ball feeder as a side order.  The first one was unfortunately too narrow and the starlings soon learnt to crane their necks through the bars and nibble at the edges.  I had to re-order and find one with bars set further apart.  Both caged feeders now confound and confuse the starlings who try hanging in each and every way to get to the food inside.  When all the other feeders are empty it must be sheer torture for them.  They are forced to sit below to wait for the small birds who slip with ease between the bars and toss down tiny scraps.  Like the most discerning shoppers, the small birds don’t take the first thing that comes to beak.  They like to rummage through and fly off with a premium morsel.  The waiting starlings snap up all the fallen scraps.  How the tables have turned.  Before the caged feeders arrived the starlings barely gave the small sparrows and blue tits the time of day, regularly sitting on their heads if they managed to find a way to the front of the feeder queue.  Now the little guys can lord it up, popping back and forth for a snack any time of day.

blue tit eyes up the fat ball feeder

blue tit eyes up the fat ball feeder

With a constant supply of food I have been rewarded by regular visits from robins, blue tits, great tits and sparrows.  I think that after three years I have finally achieved a restaurant service to satisfy all comers.  Now all I need is five star approval from Simon King, the wildlife guru.  Think I might send him an email.

 

 

 

 

Oscar is not impressed

Oscar is not impressed.

 

Posted in feelgood, Human interest, Nature, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

April 2014 – Maggots and mayhem.

I just couldn’t believe that those overwintering maggots were still asleep.  Like lazy teenagers, I decided to tip them out of their cocoon beds.  I turned the tray out onto the garden table and started to examine the small cases carefully.  I noticed that some were blowing across the table in the breeze.  These ones had a hole cut neatly in the top showing that my maggot had flown.  Some were still whole but seemed dead.  No movement from these guys and then I discovered the horror.  Two of them had managed to wriggle their heads out, but were then trapped in the shell unable to fly free.  I could only imagine the struggle they had as their cocoon protector became their cocoon confinement.

In amongst the mealworm are the dark maggot cases.

In amongst the mealworm are the dark maggot cases.

So the miracle of nature once more displayed.  A wriggling maggot laid late last summer, slept inside a safe cocoon till the following spring.  In the meantime it had morphed into a perfectly formed fly.  When a caterpillar does that trick we celebrate with best selling children’s books charting its progress.  When a maggot achieves a similarly amazing transformation we screw up our noses and look the other way.  Can you imagine a book called The Very Hungry Maggot?

Always looking out for the little guy, I have decided to create a maggot sanctuary in the back garden.  It shouldn’t be difficult.  Put some rotting food out and hey presto, maggots appear.  Instead of flushing them away with disinfectant I will simply leave them to work their own magic and turn into beautiful bluebottles.  I’m pretty sure that the last verse of the famous Burt Bacharach song went, ‘What the world needs now, are flies more flies, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.’    More flies, more sparrows, more frogs, more fun.  Well that’s my philosophy.  May get a t.shirt printed with the slogan, ‘Give maggots a chance’.

There was more drama in the garden this month.  We were adopted by a pigeon who we called Dizzy due to the fact that she spent most of her time turning round in circles.  It was clear that her GPS had gone as when she tried to take off she flew straight into the shed or the fence.  Most of the time she just sat in the garden, hunched up and lonely, waiting for ….

Oscar and Dizzy share the warm spring sunshine.

Oscar and Dizzy share the warm spring sunshine.

 

Not sure what she was waiting for actually, but she became another member of the family as she sat side by side with the cats on warm April afternoons.  She didn’t move when I went to put the washing out or bring the washing in.  She just looked up at me with a staring yellow eye and felt safe.  And I thought she was safe as neither of our cats knew what to do with a whole pigeon.  Then, on the fifth day Dizzy was gone with just a few scattered feathers to tell the tale.  Someone had ambushed her and being so trusting and so disorientated she was easy prey.  I looked around in the shed to see if she was hiding in there.  A few stray feathers were lying inside.  I looked outside the shed down the back alley to see where the thief had taken her, but the trail went cold.  Not a single feather.  In fact no feathers in any direction apart from the ones at the scene of the crime.  Now any four legged mugger would have carried off its prize and left a trail of feathers in the process, so was this the return of the sparrowhawk?  Spycam, as usual missed all the action.

The evidence.

The evidence.

There were of course witnesses.  The other birds.  The pigeons in particular would not come down into the garden to feed for quite a while after the ‘event’.  A few sat on the tray but none ventured down onto the patio.  They knew.  They had seen the deed and were now wary.  So wary in fact that for days the seed sat on the ground untouched.  But eventually hunger gets the better of us all and slowly, slowly they returned.

Life goes on, and into the garden came the first baby bird.  A tiny bluetit who sat up in the branches of the tree waiting to be fed tasty fatball titbits.  The other birds have babies as well now.   The starlings clean out the mealworm feeder by mid morning back and forth with beaks full of protein.  They also like the suet pellets, just the right size for small starling throats.  Soon the starling babies will fledge and visit the garden for the first time, just as their parents did before them.  There will be the usual squabbles and everything in sight will be covered in white guano.  When your own life gets complicated it does the soul good to sit out in the garden and watch the cycle of life repeat with a reassuring regularity.  Whatever the dilemma, whatever the crisis there is the certainty that life goes on.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

March 2014 – Half Cut

secateursWhen Mother Nature designed seasonal shrubs I’m sure she didn’t have a pair of secateurs in mind.  The pruning we do, with the best of intentions, is quite often ignorant vandalism; at least that’s true on my part.  I have no idea how to prune, when to prune or where to prune. I simply get the secateurs out in autumn and spring and chop away at ‘dead stuff’.

I have a beautiful flowering cherry in my front garden and after the blooms fade in late May they leave behind a brown mush which is just begging to be cut out and binned.  One late spring day I fetched the secateurs from the shed and began to give this plant a serious haircut, all the time thinking how it was going to thank me for removing all this dead wood.  As I cut away I noticed a small, almost insignificant green shoot appearing from the base of each ‘dead’ stem.  I continued to chop at it merrily until something told me to stop.  Well, actually the voice said, ‘You idiot you’re chopping out all the new growth,’  and sure enough that is exactly what I was doing.  So my poor cherry bush is now half cut with a distinctive bare patch where I performed surgery last year and wonderful new growth where Mother Nature took control.  So many times I’ve come to realise that my attempts at gardening are really just interfering with what She knows best.

Bald part is at the front.

Bald part is at the front.

With this in mind I considered my overwintered lavender.  They were all bushy and brittle.  No signs of life here.  Uncertain what to do I decided to apply science, which is fair enough.  On the small one which had struggled all year to grow beneath the mallow on the rockery, I was brutal, chopping back to basics.  On the next I cut only the most wild and woody branches and on the last, my main lavender bush which had survived two winters, from respect I left it completely alone.  The results so far are that the trimmed to the ground lavender has given up any attempt at rejuvenation.  ‘First she puts me in the dark all summer, then she cuts away any chance of life I ever had,’ it is probably thinking.  In revenge it just sits there, an accusing bunch of sticks, unable to produce a single glimmer of green hope.  My own fault.  The other two have worked the miracle of turning death into life which comes every spring if you just trust nature.  The brown branches have grown new green shoots and the more dead branches saved from the secateurs, the more new life there is to savour.

Small green glimmer on the left is sadly only a blade of grass.

Small green glimmer on the left is sadly only a blade of grass.

Working on the principle that the dead are only dormant, I have kept two spindly geranium spikes which look as deceased as a brown plant can look, in a pot on the garden table.  I water them, talk to them and regularly move the soil round their roots in the hope of finding a tiny speck of green.  So far nothing.

Clearly a dead geranium.

Clearly a dead geranium.

Spring wakens the plants and also brings the small birds into the garden; stocking up for nesting duty.  On the small bird front I have done all I can to make the place irresistible.  I have bought a new water tray with graduated sides for flying creatures so they can heave their way out to the edge should they accidentally fall in.  Very thoughtful.  I have also put suet with seed into the doughnut feeder that only the small guys can cling to.  Both totally ignored, so far.  But I have been blessed with a bushel of bluetits;  sometimes as many as three at a time.  I have seen them feed from the fat ball and dip into the seed feeder.  Back and forth they come, sitting high up in my neighbour’s tree between visits to clean their beaks.  I was sure that Spy cam would catch them in action.

After a week of watching the bluetits become more confident at all the food stations, I put Spy cam’s disk into the computer only to find yet more pictures of pigeons wearing grey from Amarni and starlings in speckled suits from M & S posing in their usual manner at the feeder tube and fat ball.  Not a single small bird until I finally spotted a camera shy robin with his back to the lens.  Yet I had seen these small birds on numerous occasions, flit right in front of Spy cam’s beady eye.  How come he saw nothing?  On closer inspection it turns out that the resolution on the camera was set at medium, so we reset to super sensitive and waited another week.   I’m not sure if super sensitive took up all the energy but the following week Spy cam revealed nothing but an empty disc and flat batteries. Turns out Spy cam was sickening for something so is packed away in his box ready for a return to the shop.

Camera shy robin.

Camera shy robin.

When I took the geraniums out of their winter quarters I saw that the accidental pond had all but dried up over the winter months and the stone in the centre was now covered in a rich, green film of algae.  I took the stone out and tipped what remained of the water into another tub, topping it up from the tap.   A couple of slugs had found a home here among the weed and one or two red wrigglers still gyrated along the bottom.  What had happened to all the others?  Nothing remained of them.

Inside the hibernation tent I also found the tray of mealworms which had been used as a nest for maggots late last summer.  They had all grown hard brown shells as winter approached and I wondered if they had already morphed into flies.  I tipped them out onto the table and the small brown cones were still there, unchanged.  So I put them back in the pot and decided to wait on.  Were they dead or just asleep?  Would the geranium sticks ever burst into life?  Would my lavender bush ever forgive me?  If only Mother Nature had a website.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments