Out & About – Blackhouse Wood & Crews Hill

Yesterday was a lovely sunny Sunday, so we thought we’d try and have a walk around the little nature reserve we’d failed to get to a few weeks ago – Blackhouse Wood and Crews Hill. Apparently yesterday was National Dawn Chorus Day, so a walk in the woods seemed like a nice idea to hear some bird song. With the Too Lazy ethos we were of course too late to really get the dawn chorus – the birds were doing more of a brunch chorus, by the time we got there, but it was lovely all the same.

Crews Hill signBlackhouse Wood and Crews Hill (which is also wooded) are both owned by Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and are joined to form one long thin area of semi-natural ancient woodland. The shape of the wood meant that for once, we were reasonably confident that we couldn’t possibly get lost!

The path ran pretty much straight through the wood, although it did undulate quite a bit thanks to old quarrying efforts years ago. We may not have quite been up in time for the dawn chorus, but for the first hour or so we didn’t see a soul. A lovely peaceful place to visit.

Crews woodland trail

There were a lot of squirrels (all grey of course round here) scampering through the trees and lots of rustling of mice in the undergrowth.

Squirrel

The wood was full of bird song, although spotting the birds themselves wasn’t that easy. To start with there seemed to be loads of different birds singing, but they almost always turned out to be Blue Tits. I’d no idea Blue Tits had such a variety of songs!

Blue tits

Eventually of course we did manage to differentiate some other bird species. Chris has one of those apps that will identify bird songs for you and it picked up a song thrush although we didn’t actually see it. One of the few songs we can both recognise is the chiffchaff and they were also obliging enough to pose for photos, although this one didn’t look too happy about it.

Chiff chaff

Blackbirds, robins, goldfinches and of course woodpigeons could also be heard singing their socks off. The surprising highlight of the vocals though was an owl calling – neither of us have ever heard one calling in broad daylight like that. Sadly we didn’t see the owl, but we were really lucky to get a good view of a buzzard.

Buzzard

There were quite a few butterflies flitting about in the more open sunny patches; most as usual too quick to photograph apart from this Holly Blue and Speckled Wood.

CJL_1662

Speckled Wood

Invertebrate highlight for me was spotting this tiny longhorn moth. As it fluttered down to land, it was its enormous antennae that caught my eye. The antennae are way longer than the moth’s body (hence the name) and it looks like it must take an extraordinary effort to keep them out of the way when flying.

Longhorn moth

We spent a very enjoyable couple of hours pottering around the wood; it’s nice to find another little gem of a reserve virtually on our doorstep.

Knapp Time

Lovely weather at the weekend, so we set out with great intentions of visiting a new (to us) nature reserve. Our chosen spot was a small wood not far away – unfortunately this wood only has a tiny car park and others clearly had the same idea. With nowhere to park, we headed back to our perennial favourite – the Knapp and Papermill Nature Reserve. We didn’t manage to get there last year so it was a very welcome “Plan B”.

In the wooded areas we were treated to our first banks of bluebells for the year, looking fabulous in the dappled light.

bluebells

The smell of garlic was heavy in the air in places, with banks of Wild Garlic just coming into flower.

wild garlic 2

Lesser celandines, wood anemones and primroses completed the spring flower array. A plant we don’t see so often was the Butterbur. I always think the Butterbur flowerheads look slightly alien. The leaves in the summer grow huge and were apparently used to wrap butter before the invention of fridges!

butterbur

We’d hoped for some spring butterflies to complement the spring flowers and we weren’t disappointed – 6 species at least – Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells, Commas, Holly Blues, Brimstones and Orange-Tips.

peacock on bluebell

The Orange-Tips really signal spring to me. We only saw males – hard to miss with their bright orange tipped wings. They were particularly prevalent around the cuckooflowers, a favourite food for their caterpillars.

Orange tip (3)

Apart from the odd bee, it was pretty much butterflies and birds that caught our attention on this visit. The birds were obvious from the start, with this female chaffinch making the most of the bird food the ranger puts out at the entrance to the reserve.

chaffinch

There were buzzards overhead and what I thought was some weird loud bird in the woods, until we decided it was actually a deer calling! Slightly more recognisable were the calls of blue tits and chiffchaffs, although we never actually saw the latter. We saw a pair of blackcaps, but only the female posed for a photo.

female blackcap

There’s a small river running through the reserve and a male mallard was busy snuffling about with his head under water looking for food.

Mallard (1)

Mallard (2)

Further upstream a Grey Wagtail was bobbing about around the weir. The weir seems to be a favourite spot for them to catch insects washed down the slope and we see wagtails here on most visits. This one was reflected beautifully in the still water above the weir.

grey wagtail (6)

Star of the show though has to be this Dipper – Britain’s only aquatic songbird (a beloved fact of many a Springwatch episode!). I have to admit that only Chris saw the dipper as I had been too lazy to walk down the steep steps (or more precisely couldn’t face walking back up said steps!) to that part of the river. So he got the twitcher’s tick without me.

Dipper (1)

Dipper (2)

We usually focus on the wildlife or wild plants we see, but sometimes something a bit more abstract catches the eye. The wagtails weren’t the only things reflecting in the water – we both loved the reflection of this log in the still water behind the weir. A quiet, peaceful image to finish on.

reflections

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

Another year, another lockdown; or more cheerily – another year, another Big Garden Birdwatch! The perfect thing to do for an hour when you can’t leave home.

Saturday it pretty much poured with rain all day, so today seemed like a better birding day. It was still bloomin’ cold sitting there though for an hour and my derrière was pretty numb by the time I finished.  Still it was worth it to record a very respectable 34 individuals of 12 species.

Top of the abundance was, as usual, the house sparrow. I  counted at least 12 in one go, although I’m sure we actually have more than that. Joint second were the blackbirds and jackdaws – 4 of each. I can’t tell the difference between male and female jackdaws, but for the blackbirds there was one female and at least 3 males.

Most of the rest arrived in pairs – goldfinches, great tits, collared doves, wood pigeons, starlings and magpies, although I only seemed to manage to get photos of them one at a time.

And then there was a singleton blue tit, dunnock and robin. The robin was the most sociable of the whole bunch. He even landed on the camouflage netting right by my head – too close to even get a photo. As if sensing that he might be missing his photo op, he then obligingly hopped down to some stems in front of me and posed so I could get his good side. Of course there was still a twig in the way – isn’t there always?

The (almost) highlight of the whole hour came near the end when I think a sparrowhawk zoomed across the garden after a small bird. Unfortunately it all happened so fast that I couldn’t be sure that’s what I saw and I almost got tangled in the camouflage netting in my haste to stand up and get a better look. So although I’m about 80% certain it was a sparrowhawk, I wasn’t sure enough to include it in my birdwatch results. So close!

A bit disappointed that our wren didn’t put in an appearance, nor the long-tailed tits. And really disappointed that our male blackcap was a no-show too. He’s been pretty much resident outside our patio doors for the last 3 weeks, but today of course he chose to have the morning off. Just to prove it, here he is from a few weeks ago.

Submitting my data took a few goes as the RSPB website seemed to be struggling. Hopefully that’s a good sign and means lots of people have been doing the count.

Success in the end though and nice to know I’d contributed in a small way to another bit of citizen science. Talking of which, tonight happens to be my next slug collection night for the Slug Count project. It’s all go!

Back Down to Daneway

As we were still technically on our holiday that never happened/staycation at the weekend, we decided to head out again for another butterfly day. Not a new species this time, but back down to Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire to see the Large Blues that we had only seen once before.

As we entered the reserve, the air was positively buzzing with the sound of grasshoppers. I think they were Meadow Grasshoppers and they were everywhere, pinging away from us as we walked across the grass.

The commonest butterflies by far were the Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns.

The Marbled Whites in particular were very fresh looking and quite stunning in the sunshine.

We even managed to find a mating pair; the female is the one at the top with the browner looking markings on the underwings.

It was a bit cloudy when we first arrived, so the Large Blues weren’t flying much, but as the sun started to come out we spotted a couple. On our previous visit we had only managed to get photos of a mating pair of Large Blues – most unusual for that to be our only shots, but it meant they had their wings closed. So this time we were keen to get one with its wings open. Fortunately the first one was fairly relaxed and let us take a few photos.

A very helpful reserve warden then pointed us in the direction of a “hot spot” for them, further into the reserve. This coincided with the sun really coming out, which made them much flightier. So although we probably saw about 10 more, we couldn’t get as close again to get better photos.

The final individual we saw was another raggedy one, who was perhaps to worn out to be bothered flying off, so allowed us a photo of the underside of what was left of his wings.

We’d seen a few skippers about during the day, but they are so fast it is often hard to tell which species until we can download the photos. Turns out these ones were Small Skippers, our first of the year.

The final butterfly species appeared just as we were leaving the reserve – a Small Heath, again the first of these we’d seen this year.

Once again I failed to get decent shots of a couple of birds. This woodpecker sat on a fence post for ages as I crept closer trying to get a photo, then of course just as I was getting within reasonable focal distance he flew off.

Most unusually a swallow landed on the ground only a few metres away from me. I was so surprised that I didn’t react quick enough to get a photo of it on the ground, only this blurry one as it took off again. I’d always thought they stayed on the wing almost permanently apart from egg time, but clearly this one had other ideas.

As we were about to leave the same helpful warden suggested that we might want to nip across the road on our way back to the car and have a quick look in Siccaridge Wood. It is an ancient coppiced woodland and there was apparently a Greater Butterfly-Orchid just 30 yards in. Never having heard of this, let alone seen one, it seemed worth a small detour. Sure enough, exactly as described was the tallest British orchid we’ve ever seen; it must have been at least 50cm tall. With hindsight I should have got Chris to take a photo of me next to it for scale (I stand a majestic 1.5m tall).

I can’t say the flowers looked particularly butterfly like to us, but it was certainly an impressive plant.

On our previous trip to Daneway we had finished up at the very nice Daneway Inn, but sadly of course that wasn’t possible this time. Daneway Banks is a fantastic site and a real success story for the Large Blue butterfly, which had gone extinct in the UK before the heroic efforts to bring it back. The perfect way to round off our non-holiday.

Butterflies Old and New

2020 has certainly been a most unusual (and hopefully never to be repeated) year for all of us, but finding solace in nature has been a great help getting through these strange times. At the height of the lockdown, we felt very lucky to have a garden full of wildlife that we could enjoy. We have spent an awful lot of time watching the wildlife emerge as the weeks went by and have particularly enjoyed seeing how the new pond developed. But after a while you do start to go a little stir crazy and we were longing to get out and see things beyond the confines of our garden. So as things began to ease a couple of weeks ago and nature reserves started to reopen, we made our first tentative ventures out, first to a local one and then to one a bit further afield.

First stop was Monkwood, just a few miles away and a lovely reserve that we’ve been to quite a few times before. First delight was that we heard a cuckoo calling on and off the whole time we were there – our first cuckoo of the year.  It was the end of May and the Wood White butterflies were out in abundance. They had only been reintroduced to Monkwood a few years ago, but are clearly doing really well. They are small delicate little butterflies, not as showy as say the fritillaries, but really delightful to watch and very pretty in their own subtle way.

Several other butterfly species were out, but it was particularly nice to see some Large Skippers, our first of the year.

We also saw several small and non-descript moths flitting about. Despite me chasing them around, the best photo I could manage was this blurry specimen. Turns out that they were Drab Loopers, not perhaps the most attractive of names for the poor things. They are generally a bit of a rarity though and Monkwood is a stronghold for them.

Next up was a splendid large caterpillar of the Drinker moth. The Drinker is supposedly fairly common in the West Midlands, but we’ve never seen the adult moth; so it was nice at least to see junior here trundling across the path.

On a patch of Guelder Rose, we saw loads of what looked like caterpillars, completely destroying the rose leaves. Turns out (thanks to the good people of iSpot) that it was in fact the larvae of the Viburnum Leaf Beetle, so another new one for us.

Finally for Monkwood, it was great to see my perennial favourite, the Swollen-thighed Beetle.

This week as the lockdown measures relaxed a bit more, we decided to venture further afield. This was the week that we were supposed to be going on holiday to Norfolk, where we’d hoped to see our 51st British butterfly species – the Swallowtail. Obviously all holidays were cancelled, but we came up with a plan B to at least see a 51st species. The Black Hairstreak was on our yet-to-see list and the nearest sites were about 2 hours away in Northamptonshire – just about doable in a day trip. So we set off at the crack of dawn (well a bit later than that to be honest) and headed to Glapthorn Cow Pastures.

The name might suggest it was more of a meadow and indeed it did used to be grazed by cows. But now it is managed as a mix of woodland and blackthorn scrub – ideal habitat for the rare Black Hairstreak. We got there about 09:30 just as another keen butterfly spotter arrived. Funnily enough we heard a cuckoo calling here too as we got out of the car – a good omen perhaps? We’d had tips from kind people on Facebook as to where to look, but still finding a small butterfly in a big wood did feel a bit like a needle in a haystack job. We wandered around for a bit until we met up with the other traveller again who had found a local who knew where to look and consequently found the butterfly too!

We saw at least 2 Black Hairstreaks while we were there. The first was a perfect looking specimen, but rather flighty. So apologies that all the photos are either a bit blurry or it’s got its head stuck in a bramble. But it is at least recognisably a Black Hairstreak with the black spots on an orange background around the edge of the wings and the little tail.

The second individual has unfortunately lost his tail and half his black spots (the best bits of a hairstreak) and we nick-named him Raggedy.

Raggedy was however quite obliging and hung around long after the more perfect one had disappeared. He was so keen to be seen in fact that as more people arrived we could point him out to the newcomers. Glapthorn is clearly a popular spot; by the time we left there were 9 people all trying to see the hairstreaks (Raggedy’s moment to shine) – all trying to socially distance themselves at the same time of course.

It was a lovely hot day and plenty of other butterflies around – skippers, speckled woods, red admirals, lots of meadow browns, whites (too fast to determine which) and a small tortoiseshell. There were also quite a few of these stunning black and yellow longhorn beetles (Rutpela maculata) enjoying the flowering brambles.

Having come so far, we had a walk around the rest of the wood to make the most of the day.  There were lots of very pretty orchids in full bloom (possibly Common Spotted Orchids although I’m not sure).

The sounds of the cuckoo had given way to the calls of a woodpecker. We saw a couple of them flying high in the trees and managed a couple of distant shots – looks like we had both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers.

So that’s it, our 51st butterfly seen and photographed and a couple of lovely days out to quench our thirst for wildlife. It would have been great to have been in Norfolk this week for our holiday, but hopefully we can do that next year instead. In the meantime we are very grateful not only to have such wonderful nature close by, but also that we have been very lucky to have stayed safe and well during these unprecedented times. Stay safe everyone. xx

 

Pond Arrivals

Never has the old adage “Build it and they will come” been more true of anything than of building a pond. Our new pond went in at the beginning of February – seems a world away now, given everything that has gone on in the world since then. The human world may be in chaos and despair, but for everything else life goes on and a new pond is a beacon attracting wildlife from all around. Every week if not every day something new finds its way to our pond. We’ve not been able to finish all the landscaping or get all the plants I would like to have got due to various restrictions, but it seems the wildlife doesn’t mind at all.

Quite a wide variety of insects have already found their way to the pond. A few tiny beetles whizzing around were the first we spotted, followed shortly by a lone water boatman. We suspect there are now more water boatmen, but since we only every see one at a time we can’t be sure. Both of the above have so far proved too fast to photograph.

Of course small flies and mosquitos were soon flitting over the surface of the water laying eggs, which soon hatched in large numbers into wriggling larvae. These will hopefully provide plenty of food for larger animals further up the food chain, so are a very welcome addition to the pond.

Within a couple of weeks our first pond skater arrived, followed by several of its friends! These insects are great to watch scooting across the surface of the pond in search of food. They regularly battle each other, that or they get very frisky, we’re not sure which. Apparently they use the middle legs for propulsion, the back legs to steer and the front ones for grabbing their prey.

Next insect to appear was this diving beetle which flew in and plopped into the pond while we were sitting watching. These diving beetles come to the surface and collect a bubble of air to breathe, so he or she pops up to the surface quite often.

Since then we have spotted numerous medium sized beetles whizzing around the pond, all adding to the food chain.

The biggest excitement though was the arrival of our first damselfly – a Large Red Damselfly to be precise. Hopefully this will be the first of many damselfly and dragonfly species to use the pond and I can do a full post on them soon. In the meantime here is our first one.

Other insects have been using the pond in other ways; a Holly Blue caught drinking from the pond, an Orange Tip butterfly nectaring off the cuckooflower and this snazzily striped hoverfly buzzing all over the place. The hoverflies have clearly been making whoopee as we’ve already started finding their larvae – the delightfully named rat-tailed maggots in the pond. Wriggling and semi-transparent these are very difficult to photograph, the best I could do was this short video.

Spiders have also moved in amongst the stones at the side of the pond, nipping in and out to catch unsuspecting insects.

The birds have of course continued to make good use of the pond (drinking, bathing, catching insects), to the point I feel they are annoyed with me for hogging it by sitting there for so long. My favourites so far are this pair of young magpies, exploring the world for the first time. They go everywhere together and particularly like the pond, squabbling one minute and then looking to each other for reassurance the next – a typical pair of siblings.

Sadly all the frog activity we saw in March came to nothing and we didn’t get any frog spawn this year. It’s not too surprising as the pond had literally only been in for a couple of weeks before their mating season. We’ve yet to see a toad around the pond either, but the newts have come up trumps. The first newt (they are Smooth Newts) arrived early April and since then there seems to have been more each day. I shall do a full newt blog soon as they’ve provided lots of photo and video opportunities, but here’s a taster.

Sometimes the things you don’t get to see in person can be the best though. Our hedgehogs have been making good use of the pond, carefully tiptoeing down the sloping beach that was put in specifically for them to access the pond. Obviously we rarely see them directly, but the night cameras pick them up regularly. This video shows 7 separate visits to the pond by at least 3 different hedgehogs over the course of one night. Shows the value of providing a drinking source for your hedgehogs, especially in hot weather.

 

I am so glad that we got to make the pond before the world went into lock-down. It has provided interest, relaxation, welcome distraction and so much more – we have spent an awful lot of time in the last 3 months gazing into the pond, grateful for having a garden we can sit in while staying home and staying safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nesting Update

Back in February, I blogged about my hopes of finally getting a blue tit nesting in the bird box with the camera. A male blue tit seemed to have taken to roosting every night in the box and I started to get my hopes up. In March things were progressing well and he had a lady friend who would pop in, albeit it briefly, to inspect his choice of nest site. Her visits were generally so fleeting at this stage that most of the time they barely registered on the video feed, so here are a couple of stills taken from the video and a very brief video clip.

 

This carried on for quite a while; the male roosting at night and occasionally his lady friend popping in during the day to inspect. Then on 17th March, bits of moss started appearing in the box. My hopes continued to rise.

For the last few years I have tried to help the birds along by putting out nesting material. I use two hanging baskets tied together to make a sphere and stuff it with moss and grass. The blue tits are always very quick to find the sphere and make good use of it. The female was soon taking the moss, sorting through my offerings to find the bits that were just right. I can see the ball of nesting material from our window and for a while everything was going swimmingly. I could watch her take a beak full of nesting material and fly off with it towards the nest box. Seconds later she would appear inside the nest box and I could view it on the camera.

 

So everything was going well and I was getting excited at the prospect of blue tit eggs, when sometime around the beginning of April they decided the nest box wasn’t really suitable after all. I have an old nest box on the apple tree near the moss ball and for a while they seemed to be trying that out, before abandoning that too. She was still coming for the moss, but was then flying off and out of our garden with it. One of our neighbours has probably got a very lovely blue tit nest in! Here’s a compilation of some of her nest collecting activities.

 

For the last 2 years I have also added some dog hair. My sister’s yorkie-poo Pip very generously donates his hair trimmings to the cause. He has lovely soft hair (that’s not been treated with any chemicals for fleas etc.), ideal for lining a nest.

Blue tits apparently make their nest with moss and straw etc. first then line it with softer stuff like hair and spiders’ webs afterwards. So initially the blue tit ignored Pip’s hair and just went for the moss. The jackdaws had no such qualms; they went straight in for the nice soft hair. Somewhere there is a very cosy jackdaw nest.

Although the blue tits weren’t nesting in our garden, she did eventually deign to take the dog hair too. Here’s a brief clip of her getting a beak full of the good stuff.

 

So it seems my hopes that Peter the blue tit and his mate were going to nest in our nest box have come to nought; I must console myself knowing that they are at least nesting somewhere and that is what is important. Once again they are using our garden as a supply stop – good for food and nesting material but apparently not residentially appealing. The same seems to be said for many of our other birds. We’ve seen robins pairing up and feeding each other in their courtships. Dunnocks have been flirting with each other and lots of birds have been helping themselves to the nesting material, but they all seem to do their actual nesting elsewhere. I think it must be because we don’t have the large trees they like.

So I had just about given up hope of finding a nest in the garden, when I became aware of a lot of rustling in the bay tree at the front of the house. Closer inspection revealed a pigeon’s nest. I would probably rather have had a robin or a blackbird, but beggars can’t be choosers and I am now very happy with our pigeon nest. Here is the proud mother pigeon watching my GoPro watching her.

So far the parents have sat steadfastly on the nest and I have been unable to see any eggs, but I assume there are some there. Hopefully once the chicks hatch I might get a glimpse of baby pigeons. Apparently there’s an internet thing where people query that you never see baby pigeons – well finally I might get to do so.

The birds may be refusing me nesting viewing opportunities, but I can always count on my hedgehogs for interest. They have all emerged from hibernation and are back romping round the garden again. Thankfully they are not as awkward as the birds and are quite happy to use the hedgehog house with the camera in it. I’ll do a full hedgehog update soon, but in the meantime here’s a short clip of Freda, last year’s rescue hog, having a bit of a yawn in the hedgehog house. Enjoy!

 

Pond Update

It’s the first day of Spring and it’s been about 6 weeks since our new pond went in. Although there is still work to be done on it, the wildlife has already started to move in. The pond still needs more plants and those that are there need to grow a bit to provide more cover. It’s a bit early in the season for many of the pond plant suppliers to have much stock. So as an emergency measure I’ve been chucking in bags of organic watercress from the supermarket! I also need to replant the area around the pond as it’s looking a bit bare at the moment. Hopefully this will all come together as spring gets going and we (finally) get a bit of sunshine. But in the meantime, here’s how the pond is looking now.

The birds were the first to really start making use of the pond. They love the shallow “beach” for drinking and bathing. The blackbirds and sparrows in particular have really taken to it, although we’ve also seen pigeons, robins, blue tits, starlings and magpies making use of it. The sparrows seem to like having a bit of a wash then jumping onto the big rock at the edge to dry off. Here’s a video of some of them enjoying their new splash pool.

The frogs soon found the pond and I got very excited that we might get some frog spawn. But despite a lot of croaking there’s no sign of any spawn yet. Maybe there isn’t enough plant cover to tempt them yet and we’ll have to wait until next year.  I’m never very good at night-time photography so the best I’ve managed is this grainy shot of a couple of them.

I have created “Toad Hall” using some old roof tiles buried into the soil that was excavated for the pond. Eventually it will be completely covered in branches and planted up. Hopefully it will appeal to some of our amphibian friends as a suitable home with en suite pond.

We may have drawn a blank with getting frog spawn in the new pond, but the old pond on the allotment has produced the goods. It may be a tiny pond, but it has been stuffed with frog spawn this spring. They are now starting to develop and a few tadpoles are even hatching. Here’s a short video from earlier this week:

Of course it wasn’t just amphibians we hoped to attract to the pond, any animals would be very welcome. So we were very pleased to get a fox checking the pond out within a few weeks of it being dug. So far we’ve only caught it circling round the pond, but hopefully soon it will view it as a suitable watering hole and take a drink.

The highlight for me so far has been this next video though. As spring slowly creeps in, hedgehogs are starting to emerge from hibernation. So I was really thrilled that this one has already incorporated the pond on his nightly meanderings. The gravel beach was put in specifically with hedgehogs in mind – easy access to the water and a means of getting out should they fall in. And this one seems to have got the message.

The final feature added to the pond is an indulgence for us rather than the wildlife. It’s the old bench from my grandfather’s pub, recently renovated by our ever-useful friend Gwyndaf. The perfect place to watch the wildlife in the pond while perhaps sipping a glass of something chilled. Roll on summer!