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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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February 2014 – The Hibernarium

CATERPILLAR TO GO

Tiny, sleeping caterpillar curled up in the logs.

I don’t know, you leave a few logs under your windowsill and residents start to move in.   We have a new wood burning fire and so we stacked some of the logs under the window to keep dry.  They had only been there a week or two but as I went to move them into the house I found a small, green caterpillar tucked up between two of the logs and a long-legged spider splayed out against another.  I moved them both into the over-winter shelter to stay warm alongside the sleeping geraniums.

spider to go

Long legged spider seeks refuge.

Over the Christmas break we cleared out some rubbish from the house and just piled it all up in the back garden.  It sat out there in the rain for a few weeks before we got a chance to move it out to the dump.  I was surprised to find that a couple of snails had curled up between the folds of the rubbish.  They weren’t there before, so they must have woken from their winter resting place, wandered round aimlessly, then settled into this newly provided habitat.  As I put the snails inside the over-winter shelter and covered them with a large stone, I started thinking.  If the creatures were on the move then perhaps it would be worth making my hibernarium, as there is nothing I like better than to interfere with nature just to make my futile existence seem worthwhile. 

crate

Empty crate for the Hibernarium.

I had seen this idea on the web.  Someone produced stones of interesting shapes with an array of holes, so you could put them together to make a mini-beast habitat for your garden.  They were very expensive and I decided I could do the same job using what nature had provided; though I did have to buy a wooden crate to get me started.

Into the crate I put some logs on the ground floor as I knew these were popular hiding places.  Then above that I placed some upturned flowerpots with just the hole side poking out in an inviting fashion.  I filled in the gaps with stones, wood cuttings and cut cane, for the little guys to crawl into.  On the top I put the old chimney cowl which had been removed when the new wood burner was fitted.  This cowl seemed like a perfect mini-beast hotel with entrances facing all sides.  I can lift the lid at the top to take a peek inside, which is even better.  So any wandering beastie who wakes from their winter sleep should be able to settle down here for the duration and possibly longer.

hibernarium

Completed Hibernarium.

This winter in England it has been mild and wet.  Wet, wet, wet.  I can’t begin to tell you how much rain we have had.  The rivers have flooded and once green fields have turned into ponds, complete with ducks.  It has been raining solidly since Christmas but now at the tail end of February it has finally stopped.  You realise just how much you have missed the sun when a rare glimpse of that golden orb peeks through the clouds.

It has been so mild this winter that I saw a fly in January and today I roused all the hibernating geraniums from their over-winter shelter.  They were dry as a bone behind their plastic cover and desperately needed some air and water.  They are sitting now on the garden table and look as though they are ready to burst forth with new red blooms.  I have never brought these guys out so early before.  Usually it is towards the end of March before I even think about unzipping their frost resistant cover.  Seems unlikely we will get frost or snow now, but more rain is forecast.  Of course.

2014-02-24 15.26.17

Bee friendly plants start to flower.

The bee friendly plants I put out in hanging baskets and pots last summer have also faired well and decided to flower at the first sight of sunshine.  The daffodils are up, perky and bright and the miracle of spring is in the air.  Thank goodness.  Living with all that rain was like being in a Swedish crime drama.

Spy cam has been sadly disappointing; lots of pictures of starlings and pigeons and nothing else.  I can only guess that this is because the small birds are still not coming to my garden, despite all my efforts to provide for them.   The food in the caged feeder had become stale and mouldy from neglect.  I replaced it with niger seed, but so far, no takers.  I have been trying to attract the small birds for over a year, so they have all had time to check things out.  In fact they do check things out.  Blue tits and great tits visit the garden, but none of them stay.  Robins come fairly regularly for the fat ball or the meal worm.  I even saw one hang onto the tube feeder eating the seeds.  Don’t suppose spy cam caught that though, he always seems to be looking the wrong way.

To be fair, the garden hasn’t been my priority lately, but with spring in the air and baby beaks to fill I will source some new seed for the small bird feeders and try again.  Anyone got any suggestions? Oh and by the way, it’s raining again.

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January 2014 – Birds and their culinary delights….

For a change I put some cooked rice out for the pigeons.  To be honest I didn’t want to see it go to waste.  I hate waste.  My husband Bob had dropped his mobile phone into a cup of hot chocolate.  Someone told him to encase it in a bag of rice to absorb the liquid; so he did.  I think this was just an urban myth put round by the producers of rice to be honest.   It still cost him £70 for an expert to professionally dry it out.  He then threw the abandoned bag of rice into the kitchen wastebin.  I looked at the rice sitting in there at the bottom of the bin and thought of all those peasant workers who struggle so hard to grow the stuff in sometimes appalling conditions.  I thought Shin Dong-hyuk, the guy from North Korea who was born in a Gulag; the only man ever to escape from North Korea to South.  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Escape-Camp-14-remarkable-odyssey/dp/0330519549   He told of how he would steal tiny grains of rice one at a time, on risk of death, and when he had enough he would cook them up as a delicacy.  Here I was with oodles of the stuff, all sitting in the bin.

Abandoned rice like a sprinkling of fresh snow.

Abandoned rice like a sprinkling of fresh snow.

I cooked some of it and put it out on the shed roof to see if I could tempt anyone.  The pigeons were confused.  They had seen me outside throwing stuff around and like Pavlov’s dogs began salivating at the thought of juicy seed.  But this white stuff wasn’t seed. The cooked rice just sat there like a sprinkling of fresh snow across the roof while the pigeons looked at each other.  They picked it up but then put it down again.  No fooling these guys.  Over the coming days I used my culinary skills to ring the changes.  Cooked rice with sultanas was only slightly more popular than cooked rice without.  Then I went for rice au’ natural and just threw it raw onto the ground.  This got a better reception, but only because it was more easily confused with the seed which I sprinkled on top.  After a week I had to concede that the pigeons just didn’t like rice, cooked or otherwise.  Good job they don’t live in North Korea.

The weather at the beginning of January was awful.  Windy and wet.  Then wet with more wet and even more wet on top.  We live close to the Thames and watched it creep up over the banks and peep menacingly into riverside windows.  Many less fortunate than

The rain fell down and the floods went up...

The rain fell down and the floods came up…

ourselves were flooded out.  We had a leak in the kitchen roof so I can share their pain.  It was far too wet to venture outside and put up the bird spy cam.   That had to wait for the storm to abate.  Finally, in mid January the rain stopped.  At least for a while and with tape measure in hand Bob set up the spy cam to take discrete shots of all the birds who visited the mealworm feeders.  One was a wire cage designed for peanuts and the other was a new ‘grape coloured’ tray feeder which could manage to hold enough mealworm to outperform their appetites.  I was interested to see which of the birds had the courage to go to this new feeder.  For many days it had been ignored by everyone as they were certain that it was a trap. I looked forward to seeing the results.

Bob getting technical.

Bob getting technical.

With great anticipation we loaded the sim card from spy cam into the computer.  Within seconds the images appeared.  Mugshots of all the usual suspects.  Starlings on the wire cage tucking into mealworm.  Starlings on the  ‘grape coloured’ feeder doing the same.  Pigeons arriving on the fence and pigeons leaving the fence.  All the things I had seen umpteen times from my back door window.  Not a single shot of the robin, a supposed ground feeder, clinging briefly to the wire cage to grab a mealworm.  I had seen him do this several times, but he was always gone in a blink and long before you could pick up a camera.  I was hoping that spy cam would capture an action shot worthy of a spot on BBC Winter Watch.  But not a single picture of the red breasted snatcher.

Action shots from spy cam

Action shots from spy cam

We put the camera to one side, ready to reposition it for another surveillance mission.  And there it lay, on the cupboard, its one spy eye closed to the world when the sparrow hawk swooped down into my tiny urban garden and lifted a starling from the mealworm feeder.  Spy cam didn’t notice the sparrow hawk deposit the starling by my back door step as it attempted to wrestle it into submission.  I did though.  Well I could hardly ignore the piercing screech of the distressed starling as it fought for its life on my step.  It was pure instinct which carried me outside, waving my arms and clapping my hands shouting ‘Oi, oi, oi’, like I was breaking up some kind of a playground fight.

At first I thought it was just two starlings having a bit of a ruck but when I saw the talons of the sparrow hawk my second instinct kicked in, to run back and fetch my camera.  The starling was still loudly proclaiming his reluctance to be eaten and there was no way I could leave a creature in need.  I trapped both of them up behind my water butt.  Easily done; turn a circle in my garden and you have explored every corner.  My arm waving and oi, oi,-ing continued unabated adding to the cacophony and finally the sparrow hawk decided it was all too much.  One thing struggling with brunch and quite another warding off a crazy woman.  The sparrow hawk took off leaving his meal behind.

Have you seen this bird?  Indetikit sparrow hawk seen in urban garden.

Have you seen this bird? Indetikit sparrow hawk seen in urban garden.

The starling remained cowered behind the water butt.  I gingerly put my head round expecting to see blood and loose feathers.  In fact he was none the worse for his experience and promptly flew off.  When it was over I contemplated my regrets.  I regretted not rushing back for my camera and I also wondered whether it was right to interfere with nature and deny the sparrow hawk the chance of a meal.  I did however, feel a sense of responsibility to one of ‘my starlings’ in a protective mother way and basically, I couldn’t stand by and watch his demise, complete with soundtrack at my own back door.  But most of all I regretted that spy cam, who had stood patiently all week through rain and frost had been left to sleep missing all the action.

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December – Urban Wildlife Comes Indoors.

A bit like living in the Serengeti, life in the suburbs is often shared with uninvited wildlife.  When the weather gets cold in the winter months, the mice will occasionally venture indoors in order to escape death by hyperthermia.  Always a risky option though, with two cats in the house.  Most of the mice who decide to drop by are in fact kidnap victims and unfortunately, only some live to tell the tale.  I can usually detect the guttural growl of Sooty as she crouches over her prey and if I am quick enough I can distract her long enough to give the mouse a chance to get away.  I then have to lay my humane trap in the nearest location and bait it with marmalade in the hope of catching the beast before she does.  Fortunately, my now elderly cats tend find the effort of the catch too much of a strain nowadays.  A blessing all round.

How did this little mouse get inside the box of peanuts while the lid was still on?

How did this little mouse get inside the box of peanuts while the lid was still on?

My most unusual visitor was a pigeon who wandered in the front door when I opened it to guests.  He walked straight through the house and when I opened the back door he was happy to keep on walking.  He then spent several hours wandering round in circles in my back garden.  Someone suggested that perhaps the pigeon was recovering from a shock, such as flying into a window, or being knocked by a car.  He just needed a safe refuge until his GPS tuned in again.

A close second for unusual visitors was the frog I found trying to get in through my front door.  We live nowhere near ponds or water, so he had walked some distance to get to my house.  I really should have caught him and put him out the back, but it was confusing to find a frog and in my confusion I simply left him there while I wondered what to do.  I’m pretty sure that the fox found him on his nightly patrol and made a tidy snack out of him.  I could of saved him if I had though more quickly, but how do you look after a frog with no water bar the bird bath?

One summer’s day a beautiful dragonfly wafted in through my open back door.  He settled on a bookcase and closed up his gossamer wings to have a short rest.  I decided to trap him with a tea towel and put him back outside where he could find a mate and do what nature intended.  I missed him of course and then the beautiful fairytale turned quickly into tragedy as he became stuck headfirst in a small opening above the back door.  I could not remove him without potentially pulling his head off, though I did get my tweezers out to try.   A friend consoled me with the fact that dragonflies do not have very long lives anyway, but that did not absolve me of the guilt I felt at doing nothing but panicking while his life ebbed away.

I have my fair share of spiders of course and they seem to particularly like the bathroom.  One built a web like a hammock in the corner of the window.  He regularly invited other spiders into his home for a snack as well as catching the odd fly or two which came in through the open window.  He thrived there for many months and didn’t seem to mind having to share the facilities.   Then one morning I noticed he had gone.  I waited for him to return from his trip, but he never did and within a day or two his taut web became saggy from neglect.  I realised that he must have invested time every day securing his web to the less than welcoming vinyl window frame in order to keep it so pristine.   Spiders are so very industrious, building and maintaining webs for the sake of the few meagre scraps which pass their way.  Continually underrated and unloved, if I had one wish it would be to reverse spider phobia and make them into lucky talisman.  These poor little chaps have enough trouble making their way in the world without us squashing them at every opportunity.

A cheeky pansy managed to find its way in through the bathroom window and plant itself in the fertile soil of my pot plant.  This is what I love about nature; its sheer tenacity and ability to seize every opportunity for life.   We have a lot to learn from that little pansy. 2013-11-18 20.06.45

I find woodlice all round the house; usually dead but not always.  I found a huge one crawling up the outside of the bath.  How do they get in and why?  I found a beetle in the dish cloth and realised just in time as I went to wipe the table with him.  For a time a whole bevy of slugs managed to find their way through, under or around the front door to come in at night and line dance their way across the front room carpet.  I only every saw the silver trails left behind in the morning after a night of merriment.  After I stepped on a couple barefoot, who had only managed to make it to the door mat, I carried out a raid and found all their daytime hide outs, evicting them back out into the front garden.

2013-12-25 04.50.17-1

Urban Wildlife Diary goes live!

Urban Wildlife Diary is now one year old.  My first observation was written in December last year 2012.  I continue to be fascinated by the wildlife in my tiny urban garden and I know that others have been surprised by just how much you can see if you stop and look and wonder.  But as the year turns I feel that we need to get into the technological age.  It is just pure luck if I happen to look out of the window when a sparrow hawk decides to sit on my fence.  For all the things I see I also wonder what happens when I’m not looking.  What goes on in the shed in the dark of the night and just how many visitors sample my simple menu of seed and mealworm?  Urban Wildlife Diary goes live for 2014 as I fix up my new motion sensitive camera.  Nothing will escape the beady eye of my ‘bird-cam’.   I look forward to sharing both the stories and the action pictures with you over the next 12 months.

Happy New Year and thank you for joining me in my Urban Wildlife Garden. Please visit again soon.

 

 

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December – the small bird project

That first frost in November caught us all by surprise.  It certainly shocked the nailhead guys who woke up to find their tails stuck in a sheet of ice that had formed across the top of the pond.  Once it melted I hoped they would be able to swim off, none the worse for their experience.  It was definitely time to get the over-winter shelter sorted and I wondered whether to put the pond inside.  Nature must have a plan for these creatures I thought.  I knew that all the maggots, carefully laid in the damp mealworm, had formed hard brown cases and were snoozing inside safe from the ravages of winter.  Surely the nailheaders should have morphed into adults by now, or alternatively found their own winter jackets.  The pond was very shallow.  No way of snuggling down at the bottom, though I guessed that the red worm things could still be found down there.  When I looked through the water I noticed there were more empty cases than before.  A number of nailheaders had literally flown the nest, but there were still some wrigglers in there too.  Was it now up to me to protect these guys?

I was busy with my small bird project.  I have no objection to pigeons, or starlings, crows and magpies, but I really wanted to attract some of the smaller birds as well.  The first step was to pigeon-proof the seed feeders.  Pigeons eat like hungry men in an all-you-can-eat restaurant.  If there is food, then it gets eaten.  None left for the little fellers who prefer a quieter dining experience.  Despite my previous attempts, I had been foiled by pigeons flying like humming birds so they could feed from a seed tube which didn’t have a large enough perch.  The crows too were adept at solving problems like this. ‘Bring it on,’ I could hear them saying.  I needed to be smarter than these birds.  A tall order, but I was up for the challenge.

Circular feeder with fat balls

Circular feeder with fat balls

I ordered two circular feeders with minute perches, just right for tiny bird feet.  I put these up along the garden fence, one full with seed and the other with fat ball.  They were totally ignored all summer long.  In September I added a seed feeder protected by a cage, allowing only small birds to enter.  Despite the picture on the label showing a number of small birds happily partaking of their exclusive feeding station this was not my experience. No-one went near it and I can’t blame them as it looked totally like a trap.

I knew what the trouble was.  Partly it was the abundant summer which meant that all the birds could find plenty of food for themselves thank you very much.  It was also the location of my garden.  Our small terrace forms a comet like tail for the larger gardens up and to the left.  These houses have mature trees, lawns, bushes and space.  I just wasn’t getting the footfall.  Like any good shopkeeper I decided to provide more of what the customer wanted in the hope of attracting the wildlife once the weather turned colder.  I started by changing the quality of the fat balls on offer.  On advice I selected some ‘Chunky Dumplings’ from  livingwithbirds  and once unpacked I could tell that this was high class cuisine.  The crow was the first to try them and I must say they have proven to be a big hit.  The old fat balls used to lie neglected until they went mouldy, but these ones are literally flying off the shelf. I also put mealworm out into two different feeders for the starlings.  To reduce argument I placed them some distance apart.  The starlings soon returned to enjoy their mealworm, but still no small birds.

Chunky Dumpling fat balls.  Yum

Chunky Dumpling fat balls. Yum

I wondered if the small birds were put off the feeders due to lack of cover, so took them away from the fence and arranged them all in the tree; trying to ensure that the pigeons could not use a handy branch to snack attack.  With personalised feeders and high quality fat balls tastefully displayed, I sat back with my customer survey questionnaires and waited.

As the long, hot summer turned slowly into autumn I received very few small bird visitors.  A female robin made a solitary appearance, signalling her arrival with a distinctive peep, peep.  She ate any remains on the tray and nibbled the fat balls but didn’t go anywhere near the other feeder tubes.  But then robins are ground feeders, so what did I expect.  Then one day a Great Tit came for a taster session.  He went to each feeder in turn and selected its wares.  I started to get really excited and crossed out ‘Great Tit’ in my spotters guide, but sadly my offerings were not to his liking and he did not return.

The abundance of natural food lasted well into the autumn and my small bird project failed to excite any interest.  Even the female robin seemed to have disappeared.  But I knew that come winter, they would be beating a path to my door and as news spread my humble garden would once again become the ‘Ivy’ of bird gourmet dining.  My confidence was finally rewarded when a whole host of small birds arrived, possibly on a coach trip.  The tree next door was alive with wag-tails, never before seen in this neck of the woods and great tits (more than one) ricocheted through the branches of the tree selecting titbits from all the feeders.  I even saw one go inside the cage!   They were of course too rapid for me to capture on film so you will just have to take my word for it.

Shelves protecting the strawberry plants from the slugs and snails.

Shelves protecting the strawberry plants from the slugs and snails….

becomes the winter shelter courtesy of a new jacket with matching zips.

…becomes the winter shelter courtesy of a new jacket with matching zips.

The winter shelter is now complete.  The flap is left open until the frosts start with a vengeance.  The geraniums were the first to take up residence.  They are veterans of the winter shelter as this is their third year in hibernation and they soon settled down.  Around them I put in all the smaller pots, including some pansies.  Not sure if they will survive but let’s see.  The strawberry plants were evicted in the process but they turn the most wonderful autumn colours before they die down and the frost doesn’t seem to stop them bouncing back again once the warmth of the spring arrives.  The bulbs have all been planted.  The ones stored in the shed had got eaten a bit by the mice but some had new green shoots which looked ready to burst so I planted them all.  I covered over the hibernating snails with the old IKEA curtain, not needed now the winter shelter has a bespoke jacket complete with matching zips.  So as we all snuggle down for winter, the restaurant is fully open for birds large

Snails tucked up beneath the old IKEA shower curtain.

Snails tucked up beneath the old IKEA shower curtain.

and small.  I’m pretty sure that I will be able to report more sightings of small birds now that the weather is starting to bite.

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