2018 – Some Highs, Some Lows

Every January I tend to do a review of our previous wildlife year, so here goes. 2018 was a mixed year for us to say the least, with some difficult family issues and the loss of our beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat – Puddle. It’s been 9 months and I miss her every day. Family problems have meant we haven’t managed to get out and about as much as normal and consequently the blog posts have been a bit thin on the ground. Hopefully 2019 will bring happier times. I can’t think of any better therapy than getting out and enjoying the wildlife both in our garden and beyond, so hopefully 2019 will bring more of that.

Having said all that, there were a lot of positives too. 2018 started well with some birdy highlights. We saw our first ever Hawfinches at Bewdley and also a pair of Peregrine falcons up on the Malverns less than a mile from our house. Hopefully the peregrines will return this year and we’ll get some better photos. We “rented a nest” through Worcestershire Wildlife Trusts scheme at Knapp & Papermill and “our” nest box was found to have blue tits with 8 chicks hatched in the spring.

The Beast from the East weather front blew in during March, bringing the most snow I can remember for a good few years. It may have been cold but we had the bonus of fieldfares and redwings in the garden, which was great. We also had another day in a photography hide, this time overlooking a reed bed full of buntings and warblers and the occasional lightning flash of a kingfisher.

 

There was delight in spring, when the pond which we’d put in at the allotment the previous year had its first clumps of frog spawn. With the help of our new GoPro camera we watched the spawn turn to tadpoles and then to mini frogs. Hopefully at least some of these will have survived and will return to their ancestral pond to mate this year.

At the end of May we headed to the Isle of Wight for a long weekend. Our main aim (other than to sample the local hospitality) was to see 2 more species of butterfly – the Glanville Fritillary and the Adonis Blue. Thankfully despite an unpromising foggy start, we managed both of these, plus a few precious glimpses of some red squirrels.  During the year we also managed to see a Large Heath and some Clouded Yellow butterflies, taking our tally of British butterflies to 47.

The trail camera was of course out almost full time during the year and with it, we were really excited to get our first glimpse of a fox in the garden. Hedgehogs of course featured heavily, with both feeding the wild ones and fostering a few rehabilitating ones. We were really worried in the summer when our neighbours announced they were replacing the fence. Thankfully they are lovely neighbours and readily agreed to have 3 gaps put in their new fence specifically for hedgehogs to come and go. The hedgehogs soon found the new gaps and as can be seen in the video clip below have been making good use of them.

Highway Traffic

 

As well as trying to bag as many butterfly species as possible, the moth trap has also been put to good use; one of the few things I’ve managed to keep going throughout the year for the Garden Moth Scheme. This year alone we have recorded 220 moth species in the garden. Overall since I began moth trapping I’ve found 331 species – not bad for a fairly regular (albeit scruffy) suburban garden. This year’s moth haul has included a couple of beauties I’ve been dying to find for a long time – a Rosy Footman and a Chinese Character.

As well as the regular moth trapping, we had a go with pheromone lures, managing to attract Currant Clearwings to the garden and the fabulous Emperor Moth on Hartlebury Common.

And that’s pretty much a summary of the year – very quiet in the latter half, but some really nice wildlife moments in the first half.

So of last year’s New Year’s Resolutions, I think the only one we managed to fully achieve was to see 3 new butterfly species – we actually managed 4! Of the remainder:

  1. Video the blue tits fledging in the garden – well they didn’t use the nest box with the camera, so that drew a blank. But we did support a family of blue tits at Knapp & Papermill reserve through the rent-a-nest scheme, so that is something at least.
  2. Visit 5 new nature reserves – I don’t think we managed any locally, but we did do some on the Isle of Wight and we revisited a few of our favourite ones around here instead.
  3. The pond – well the pond in the garden hasn’t progressed at all, but the one on the allotment is doing great, so that’s sort of a result.
  4. Make a hoverfly lagoon and monitor it – well I inadvertently made one by leaving a large tub of garden cuttings out by accident. It filled with rainwater and is now probably ideal hoverfly larval habitat. I didn’t do any monitoring on it, but maybe that’s something I can do in the spring.
  5. A moth tattoo – still not managed that, but a new tattoo parlour has opened up in Malvern, so my chances of getting it done have improved.

So that brings me to 2019’s resolutions, hopefully I’ll have a bit more success with these ones than last year.

  1. Photograph 3 new British butterfly species – this would bring our total to 50 out of the 58 or 59 candidates.  We’ll probably have to travel some distance for this – the perfect excuse for a holiday.
  2. Visit 5 new local nature reserves – we’ve bought Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s book with all their reserves in, so no excuse not to achieve this one.
  3. Go and see the red kites in Wales – I’ve been wanting to go and see the red kites near Rhayader for years, so 2019 is going to be it!
  4. A trip to the seaside to find some rockpools and try out the GoPro camera in them – fingers crossed for some hermit crab action!
  5. Finally sort out the garden pond.
  6. That moth tattoo!

Happy New Year everyone!!

 

A Lot Going on at the Allotment

We’re well over half way through 30 Days Wild already, but I’ve not had chance to blog much this month. This certainly hasn’t been due to a shortage of wildlife though. The allotment is particularly busy at this time of year with everything (especially the weeds) springing into life. A neighbouring plot has regular slow worm sightings, which I view with great envy. For some reason we can’t tempt them onto our plot even though it is just a few metres away. But I sneaked a peak into said neighbour’s compost bin the other day and was delighted to spot a lovely large slow worm happily sitting on top of the compost.

Unfortunately the compost bin was too high and I was too short to be able to hold the camera high enough to get the whole reptile in focus, which was a bit annoying. So I went back the next day with my GoPro camera on a stick and did a short video to fit it all in. The slow worm didn’t move so it’s not exactly an action packed sequence, but at least you can see the whole animal.

Slow worm on allotment

 

A few sunny June days have also allowed me to try out my latest moth pheromone lure – this time trying to attract the currant clearwing. We have plenty of currant bushes down on the allotment, so it seemed a reasonable assumption that we’d get the moths, but I was still amazed how quickly they came. No sooner had I put the lure out and turned round to get the camera when there was already a hopeful moth buzzing round the trap. Within minutes I had about half a dozen. They were smaller than I expected and are most unusual looking insects. If I didn’t know they were moths I don’t think I would ever have guessed. See-through wings on a body striped a bit like a wasp with a strange pompom tail. They were of course all males having been fooled into thinking my lure was an attractive female.

I did try the lure out at home later – we don’t have any currant bushes there, but I was just curious. Surprisingly I got even more moths in the garden than I did on the allotment. The currant clearwing moths are obviously reasonably abundant in our area and yet I’ve never even glimpsed one without the lure.

Next insect of interest was a large red damselfly laying eggs in the allotment pond.

I didn’t see the male, but there obviously must have been one, because the female was very busy ovipositing in the pond. You can see her in the next photo curving her abdomen round to place each egg carefully in position.

I did try and video her laying the eggs, but she managed to position herself at an awkward angle to film, so apologies for the blurry (and shaky) camera work, but you can hopefully see how carefully she positions her abdomen, delicately probing to find the right spot.

Damselfly ovipositing

The other really interesting insects we’ve been getting at the pond are signal or semaphore flies – small long legged flies with the grand name of Poecilobothrus nobilitatus. The males have white tips to their wings which they wave about like semaphore flags to signal to each other and to females. I’ve spent ages trying to film their displays, but they are so small and so quick it is very difficult to focus on the right bit of the pond at the right time! But in this first shaky video below a male can just about be seen energetically trying to see off another male with his assertive wing display.

signal flies males

In this second shaky video a male (on the right) is trying to woo a female (on left) with his hopefully impressive courtship display. Not sure how convinced she was!

signal flies male and female

But the big excitement for me is the development of our tadpoles into mini frogs. We’ve been anxiously watching over them since March and spotted our first mini frogs in early June. I’ll do a full froggy update soon hopefully, but here are a few photos for now. We seem to have them in all stages of development still – many are still just tadpoles, some now have back legs only, some are starting to show front legs and some like this one below are virtually there apart from the remains of a tail.

The froglets are generally only about the size of a fingernail, but they are perfectly formed – frogs in miniature.

They can of course breathe in the air now, and some are already starting to explore beyond the confines of the pond. We have to be very careful where we tread as the grass is now full of tiny froglets.

So plenty going on down the allotment and that’s without even looking at the bees, the birds, the hoverflies and butterflies that we see regularly too. Not all the plots on our allotment site are gardened organically, but ours is and I feel we reap the benefits. So what if we loose the odd vegetable or some fruit to caterpillars or slugs or pigeons – the rewards of a plot full of wildlife far outweighs the losses. I can live without the odd lettuce or raspberry, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on mini frogs and semaphore flies!

 

It’s a Frog’s Life

I’ve been virtually staking out our allotment pond since the middle of February, hoping for frog spawn.  As it turns out, it was probably a good job we didn’t get any spawn that early, as the heavy snow at the beginning of March would probably have wiped it all out. But in mid-March there were squeals of excitement down the lottie, when we spotted the first magical clusters. We had frog spawn! We’d put in the pond too late for spawn last year, but we did get several frogs and newts using it throughout the summer. So it was great that the frogs at least deemed it suitable for spawning in. No sign of any toad or newt spawn yet, but I live in hope. As I’d just got a waterproof GoPro camera a month or so ago, the arrival of the frog spawn seemed the perfect opportunity to test it out. So here’s my very first underwater video, taken on the first day we spotted the frog spawn – 11th March.

Frog Spawn

Since then I’ve been down the lottie regularly to check on progress. We can’t be sure exactly which day the frog spawn was laid, but I would guess it was only a day or two before we saw it. At first there was only one clump, but two days later there were three. So I’ve been trying to keep a video/photo diary of the development. I’m still getting the hang of the settings on the GoPro and also on getting things in focus, so apologies if the images are sometimes a bit blurry. So first up here are the eggs on Day 2 – pretty much perfectly round dots in their jelly bubbles.

No real changes were visible to the naked eye for the first week or so, but by day 11 they were starting to change shape. No longer perfectly round, the eggs were more like fat commas.

Two days later and the comma shaped were definitely elongating, with the suggestion of a tail.

By day 15 there were definitely mini tadpoles inside the jelly blobs. No sign of movement yet, but heads and tails were clearly visible.

Day 18 (28th March) and the tadpoles had started to hatch. Some were still in their protective jelly, but quite a few were clearly visible stuck to the outside of the eggs. These were all on the first clump of spawn we’d seen, the tadpoles in the other two clumps were not surprisingly a few days behind, having been laid later.

Day 20 and most of the first clump had hatched. They were starting to move a bit more now and had got a bit bigger so that gills were just about visible on some of them. They were still feeding off the jelly of the spawn.

Day 20

 

Day 24 (3rd April) and some of the slightly larger tadpoles were starting to move away from the jelly clump. Some of the tadpoles on the other two clumps of spawn were now starting to hatch too.

Day 29 and they were free swimming – the pond was alive with wriggling tadpoles. They were grazing on the algae growing on the sides of the pond and on the rocks.

I felt ridiculously proud of them that they had managed to make it this far, despite the rubbish weather spring has thrown at them! But they’re not out of the woods yet – as the next video shows there are still dangers lurking in the pond!

Day 29 8th April

 

Newts will eat tadpoles, so the chances are that not all of these will survive, but hopefully there are enough of them that some at least will make it. The newts have to survive too. With a bit of luck maybe we’ll get some newts laying eggs too – the newt in the video appeared to have a bit of a frilly ridge so is perhaps in breeding condition.

So that’s the progress so far in the first month of our tadpoles lives. Hopefully enough of them will survive that I’ll be able to do an update in a month or two’s time, as the tadpoles develop into baby frogs. Fingers crossed!

 

Spring Is In The Air (and in the Pond)

It is now a couple of weeks since the official start of spring, but it’s felt like it’s been a bit slow actually happening. But having looked at some of the animals we’ve seen in the last few weeks, maybe spring is slowly, tentatively, making itself known after all.

So first up, one of my all time favourites and the first bee of the year – the Hairy Footed Flower Bee. As is so often the case with these, I heard it before I saw it – a male buzzing energetically around the primroses. No sign of any females yet, I think they emerge slightly later.

March also sees the start of the annual Garden Moth Scheme. It’s been a particularly cold and wet start so I’ve not had a huge variety, but numbers are slowly picking up. Here’s a nice trio of the Orthosia genus – a Common Quaker, Clouded Drab & Twin-spotted Quaker.

The moths may be trickling in, but the butterflies have been very slow – not seen a single one in the garden yet this year. But we went for a walk in nearby Priory Gardens a week or so ago and spotted quite a few. A bright yellow Brimstone (way too fast to get a photo), several Commas and at least half a dozen Small Tortoiseshells – all basking in the sunshine.

One thing I’ve been particularly looking forward to is the arrival of frog spawn in our allotment pond. We put the pond in too late last year to get spawn laid, but this year we were good to go and the frogs didn’t disappoint. Here’s a quick video using the new GoPro camera. More froggy updates to follow in the next blog post as the tadpoles develop.

Frog Spawn

 

We didn’t see any frog spawn in the ponds at Priory Gardens, but there was plenty of bird activity. A couple of moorhens and lots of ducks, including this splendid looking mallard. There’s something about watching ducks on a pond in the sunshine that is not only really relaxing, but feels very spring-like to me.

The previous blog post was all about the peregrines up on the hill, but they weren’t the only birds we saw that day. This male bullfinch looked to be enjoying the spring sunshine sitting on a wild cherry tree (cherry blossom buds being one of their favourite foods apparently).

We also spotted jackdaws that had found some crevices in the rock face to nest in. The hole didn’t look that big, but they were taking quite sizeable twigs in there, so perhaps it opened out inside.

I don’t know if this dunnock was sensing spring or just feeling a bit odd, but it was behaving very strangely. It spent about 10 minutes sitting on top of the hedgehog house (not a safe spot since the neighbour’s cat often sits there), fluffing up its feathers repeatedly and shuffling about. It looked almost as if it was incubating eggs but there was no nest there (I did check it hadn’t laid anything). It stretched its neck out a few times and gaped its beak as well. I know dunnocks have some weird mating habits, but there didn’t seem to be another dunnock around for it to impress with the behaviour. Whatever it was doing it got fed up eventually and flew off into the bushes quite normally. If anyone can shed any light on the behaviour, it would be very much appreciated.

The dunnock may have been behaving strangely, but it was perfectly obvious what this blue tit was up to – gathering nest material. I saw someone suggest recently that you could provide nesting material by tying two hanging basket frames together to form a rough ball and filling them with moss and the like. Apologies to whoever’s idea it was, as I can’t remember where I saw it to be able to credit them properly – but it was a great idea, thank you. We had some old hanging baskets kicking around the garage and the “lawn” is full of moss,  so this was an easy idea to achieve. And the blue tits seem to appreciate it as almost immediately they started taking great beakfuls of moss and flying off with it.

Once it had got a beak’s worth of moss it would then stop on a twig to rearrange the moss a bit more tidily (presumably so it could see where it was flying), before taking off.

Blue Tit gathering nesting material

If only these blue tits had taken the moss back to the lovely nesting box with camera in that we’ve now had up for 2 years in exactly the spot where they used to nest! But no, they must be nesting elsewhere and all we’ve got on the nestcam is a spider’s web! Still at least we know they are nesting somewhere and that we’ve helped a little bit.

And finally spring must surely be on its way because our hedgehog is back! Whether it is Fat Sam from last year emerged from hibernation or a completely different hog, I have no idea. But it looks big and healthy and has a good appetite.

First hedgehog of 2018

None of these signs of spring maybe big newsworthy events,  but sometimes it’s spotting the small things in life that gives the most pleasure. And we’re certainly very happy that spring is finally on its way to Malvern.