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!

National Nest Box Week 2020

It’s National Nest Box Week again, a time to encourage everyone to put up nest boxes in their gardens if they can. You can find out more and get lots of useful tips at: https://www.nestboxweek.com/

We have several nest boxes in the garden, although they don’t seem to get used much sadly. Knowing it was National Nest Box Week coming up, I decided to plug in the camera we have in one (so far unused) blue tit box. I hadn’t checked this particular box for a while as nothing ever seemed to happen in it. So I was thrilled when I connected the camera one evening last week and got this:

A blue tit was using the box as a night time roost. We thought maybe it would just turn out to be a one-off event, but he or she has been back every night since, which is fantastic. Every night it arrives around 5pm just before it gets dark. The camera trigger is too slow to capture it actually coming in through the hole, but it catches it settling in for the night. Initially there’s always a bit of bobbing up and down and checking round the box, presumably as it decides whether it is still a safe place for the night.

The nights themselves aren’t as restful as I imagined they would be. There is an awful lot of fidgeting about and preening, but I suppose it’s a safe time and place to be doing that.

In the morning there is always a bit of stretching and bobbing up and down. It looks as if it’s trying to peer out of the hole to see if it is safe or perhaps just listening for any threats, before it hops up, has a final look around then flies off for the day.

The nights are still pretty cold for a small bird in an uninsulated box. The blue tit copes by fluffing up its feathers to create insulating air pockets. When the bird arrives in the box each night it starts of looking fairly sleek with feathers smooth against its body. As it settles down it fluffs up its downy under feathers – in the next video you can pretty well see it increasing in size as it fluffs up until it is an almost round ball of feathers. Another trick to keep warm is that it then tucks its head under a wing while it sleeps.

So of course now our Blue Tit (we’re calling him Peter after Blue Peter) is visiting regularly, we’re getting our hopes up that perhaps this will finally be the year we capture nesting action on video. We live in hope, but at least if nothing else we have provided a safe roosting space by putting up the nest box.

We’ve got a couple of new nest boxes to put up this year thanks to our lovely gardener Gwyndaf. One has a small hole in a solid front for blue tits or similar and the other is more open fronted – ideal for robins. Just need to find suitable spots to put them out of reach of the neighbours’ cats.

Further afield we are once again sponsoring a nest box through Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Rent-a-Nest scheme. We’ve been sponsoring the same nest for a couple of years now. The first year it had a family of blue tits that successfully fledged. Last year it was empty, but at least the money went to support the reserve it’s on (Knapp & Papermill Reserve) so still worth it. Fingers crossed it gets used this year though.

Although National Nest Box Week is primarily aimed at birds, I see no reason not to include other types of nest box – hedgehogs of course! If you’ve got space in your garden why not consider putting in a hedgehog house. Provide a safe dry house for them to build their nests in.

You can buy ready-made hedgehog houses (lots of online options or larger pet shops) or you can build your own. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has an excellent leaflet with designs for building your own:

Hedgehog Homes

Watching a hedgehog making use of a home you’ve put out for it has to be one of the most rewarding things to do in your garden.

Heath, heath, heath!

On our recent trip to Somerset, we had a bit of a mission going on – to see 2 more species of butterfly, namely the Heath Fritillary and the Marsh Fritillary. We went for the Heath Fritillary first, having discovered a site at Haddon Hill that was supposed to have a population of them. Haddon Hill is at the edge of Exmoor and overlooks the delightfully named Wimbleball Lake. Unfortunately having researched enough to find the hill had a population, we didn’t dig deep enough to find out exactly where on the hill to look. So we ended up spending about 3 hours wandering round the hill on a walk that was only supposed to take an hour! Not a glimpse of a fritillary, but we did see a Small Heath at least – not the heath we wanted, but after 3 hours we were just grateful to see a butterfly – any butterfly!

The hill did however have its fair share of bird life, including lots of Meadow Pipits, who seemed to fly up repeatedly to get a better view of us trudging in circles.

We also saw several of the famous Exmoor ponies – much easier to spot than the butterflies. They are native breed of pony and were recorded on Exmoor as far back as the Domesday book and have probably been there for thousands of years.

Fortunately having drawn a blank on Haddon Hill, we had a plan B when it came to the Heath Fritillary. We had booked ourselves onto a guided walk by Butterfly Conservation and the National Trust around Halse Combe the following day. The weather wasn’t promising with rain forecast, but at least we were with people this time who knew where they were going!

So we headed up the combe until we reached a sunny(ish) open slope. Almost immediately someone spotted a Heath Fritillary, basking in what little sunshine there was on some bracken. It was smaller than we had expected and much browner than the other fritillaries we have seen, but a real beauty. We waited our turn while everyone in the group had a go at photographing the first one – so here it is, our first heath fritillary:

After that the group fanned out across the slope looking for more butterflies and being very careful not to stand on any! It being a bit of a cold damp day actually helped with the photographs as the butterflies weren’t in the mood for flying. So once you found one, it was relatively easy to get a photo. The Heath Fritillaries are beautiful on their uppersides, but their wings are even more stunning when the undersides are visible; like miniature stained glass windows. So here are a few of our favourite shots from the day.

We spent a very happy half hour or so photographing the butterflies before the heavens opened and it really did start raining quite heavily. We took shelter under some trees, until it became obvious that the rain wasn’t going to stop and we headed back down hill. On the way, one of our guides showed us some of these pretty little Heath Spotted Orchids.

We returned to the carpark, slightly soggy, but very happy to have seen our 48th species of butterfly. Thank you to Meghan from Butterfly Conservation and Basil from the National Trust to leading us straight to these elusive butterflies and giving us an excellent and informative guided walk. So we went looking for a Heath Fritillary and ended up getting a Small Heath and a Heath Spotted Orchid too – 3 for the price of 1, can’t be bad!

 

Bees, Bats, Butterflies and Birds at Bridge Cottage

We’re just back from a holiday in Exmoor and as usual have returned with hundreds of wildlife photos, having spent the week in our usual glamorous manner. Most people probably take swimming costumes, flip flops and suncream on holiday; we took a moth traps, bat detector,  underwater camera and trail cameras! We stayed at a lovely cottage by the River Barle in Withypool, Somerset – an absolutely idyllic location, with plenty of wildlife potential.

Our holiday coincided with the start of 30 Days Wild, so the perfect excuse for wildlife watching, not that we ever need an excuse. The cottage had loads of bird life including sparrows nesting around the guttering. A pair of blue tits were nesting in the apex of the shed. They were really devoted parents bringing food constantly despite the rain (hence dishevelled photo below) and removing the faecal sacs to keep the nest clean.

There were plenty of mayflies hatching while we were there and the swifts made good use of them flying low over the water and snatching them out of the air. Best of all we could hear a cuckoo calling every morning around dawn. The sound of a cuckoo combined with the sound of the river is a great way to wake up in the morning.

Not surprisingly the abundant insect life attracted bats too. We got the bat detector going and were rewarded with clicks and chirp noises that sounded different to our usual Pipistrelle bats at home. The clicks were closer to the 47-48kHz frequency than the 45kHz we get at home, so perhaps these bats were either Daubenton’s or Natterers? Unfortunately we didn’t manage to record the noises to be sure and it was too dark to actually see the bats.

The first day we arrived at the cottage we had glorious sunshine and a warm night – perfect conditions for an evening glass of wine in the garden and to put the moth trap out! We couldn’t believe the abundance of moths we got in the morning. Many of the moths we caught were species we’d seen before but never in such numbers – buff tips, white ermines, brown silver lines – all species which we see occasionally in Malvern, but rarely more than single individuals. There were 2 species though that we’ve never seen before – Nut Tree Tussock and Campion – nice to add to our life lists of species.

As usual an Elephant Hawkmoth stole the show, but it did have competition from this stunning Puss Moth!

The River Barle which ran past the garden had sparkling clear water (every day except the last day when heavy rain had clouded it).  One of the first things we noticed were several dead Signal Crayfish both in the water and on the river bank.

These are an introduced species and are causing serious problems by outcompeting the native crayfish and by tunnelling into river banks leading to erosion. There are projects to actively remove them from rivers like the Barle, so it could be the dead crayfish we saw were part of this.

On a cheerier note, there were lots of presumably native minnows swimming in shoals near the river bank. So armed with our waterproof GoPro camera, I heroically waded in with my wellies. A slight miscalculation between height of wellies and depth of water, led to some wet feet, but at least I managed to video the minnows!

The river also had numerous tadpoles, who remained hidden in the plants near the bank during the day, but emerged into a sheltered inlet in the evenings. They were much darker than the tadpoles we get back home in the pond, so they may be toad tadpoles rather than frogs.

 

The cottage garden was well planted with plenty of shrubs and flowers for wildlife, including some gorgeous lupins that the bees absolutely loved.



One even got so carried away it forgot where it was and landed on my hand.

We saw a few butterflies in the garden, including our first Painted Lady of the year, but the highlight had to be this – a Green Hairstreak. To see these little beauties previously we’ve had to travel to nature reserves, so to have one virtually fly up to us in the garden was amazing. So amazing that I fumbled with the camera and only managed one rubbish photo – but it is just about recognisable as a green butterfly!

So we can highly recommend a stay at Bridge Cottage in Withypool for anyone interested in wildlife – there’s certainly plenty of it. The village itself was charming with a pub, shop and café – what more could you want from a holiday?

We did of course venture out while we were in the Exmoor area in search of more butterflies, but I’ll cover those in subsequent blog posts – watch this space!

 

 

 

 

 

Spring in the garden

The Spring Equinox has been and gone already and I’ve been gathering video clips for weeks now with signs of spring. I blogged about the allotment last week, so this time it’s the turn of the Too Lazy garden proper. I’ve had the cameras out all over the garden and got so many videos it’s taken a while to sort through them; but here are some highlights from the last few weeks.

Our first hedgehog woke from hibernation and appeared on the trail camera at the end of February – quite early, but given the mild winter we’ve had, maybe not too surprising.

 

It wasn’t long before one became two and a second larger hedgehog appeared in the same part of the garden. This second one didn’t seem too keen to share the food with the smaller one and there were a few tussles the first night. I had hoped One-eyed Tim, one of last year’s hedgehogs, might have appeared by now, but neither of these are optically challenged, so I hope he’s just late coming out of hibernation.

 

The garden birds, in particular the blue tits, seem to be feeling the spring in the air too. Blue tits used to nest in our garden, but for the last few years, they seem to have turned their noses (or beaks) up at it and although regular visitors, they must be nesting elsewhere. I did get hopeful when the old nest box we’d stuck on the apple tree seemed to be getting a bit of attention:

 

Unfortunately despite repeated visits to check it out, they seem to have found it lacking in some way. They may not be favouring our garden for their nest, but they’re not averse to making use of the nesting material we’ve put out for them. I’d filled an old hanging basket with hay and moss raked up from the lawn and the blue tits wasted no time helping themselves to it.

 

In the absence of nest box footage, I thought I’d make the most of the hay/moss collection and try and get some different shots of this activity instead. First I tried putting the GoPro on a branch above the basket, which worked reasonably well.

 

I then had a go putting the camera inside the basket cage itself. The blue tits weren’t bothered by it at all, so I got some half decent shots of them tugging at the moss to get the best bits.

 

Last month I succumbed to the urge to get yet another camera for the garden – this time one trained exclusively on a feeder. We can live feed it to the living room, which is great, although most of the time we end up just watching peanuts swinging in the breeze. But I did eventually manage to get a brief clip of the blue tits – once again happy to avail themselves of anything on offer in the garden (except the nest boxes).

 

The blackbirds made an early start gathering nesting material at the end of February – or at least the female in this video clip did, the male seemed more interested in making sure we got his best side on film!

 

The squirrel wasn’t doing anything particularly spring-like, other than checking whether the hedgehogs had left anything worthwhile; but I can never resist the squirrels, so here’s his few seconds of fame too.

 

The water bath seems to have been coming into its own again now spring’s here too. This blackbird was making the obvious use of it by bathing and of course lots of birds just drink from it.

 

But one magpie in particular has been using it for something a bit different. He or she has been eating bits of the cat food that I leave out for the hedgehogs. Most of it is eaten straight down, but some pieces are perhaps too hard, so it has been dropping them in the bird bath, presumably to soften them up a bit.

 

So there’s plenty of activity in the garden already this year and that’s without even discussing the insects that are all starting to appear too (I’ll save them for the next blog post). I love this time of year when everything is optimistic with the promise of the summer to come; perhaps the wildlife in the garden feels the same?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Nest Box Week

It’s National Nest Box Week again (14th to 21st February), so no prizes for guessing what today’s blog post is about. The idea of Nest Box Week is to encourage people to put up more nest boxes for their garden birds. It’s coming up to the time of year when birds start thinking about finding a mate and then looking for a suitable nest site. So by putting up the nest boxes now, the new couples will hopefully have plenty of choice come the spring.

We did have an open fronted nest box on the fence last year, but had to take it down when the fence was replaced. So this weekend seemed the perfect time to put it back up again. Open fronted nest boxes are suitable for robins and wrens, both of which we get in the garden, so fingers crossed they fancy the new location.

We also had an old and slightly tatty nest box more suited to blue tits; it had seen better days, but we’ve stuck it up anyway on the apple tree in case our birds aren’t too picky!

We’ve still got the two blue tit nest boxes up on the garage wall, one with a camera fitted. So far the blue tits have refused to use these the last few years, despite using one previously in exactly the same location! We remain ever hopeful that this year will be the year we get footage of a nest!

Even if you don’t have a suitable space to put up your own nest box, you can still help by sponsoring one. Many wildlife organisations have schemes whereby you can sponsor or “rent” a nest box, giving the charities much needed funds to support their chosen species. Our local Worcestershire Wildlife Trust runs just such a scheme, so we’ve sponsored Nest Box Number 15 again this year. We supported the same nest box last year and got a lovely letter saying a family of blue tits had used it – result! Fingers crossed for more of the same this year.

National Nest Box Week may be aimed primarily at birds, but if you can, why not consider providing a home for other animals. Hedgehogs can benefit from extra places to hibernate, but they also need places to sleep during the day for the rest of the year. So although it may be too late for hibernation this year, a hedgehog house put out now could be used through the spring and summer as a day nest.

 

 

Big Garden Birdwatch 2019

It’s that time of year again – the Big Garden Birdwatch. I think every year I write a similar post about that mixture of anticipation and frustration that this fantastic bit of Citizen Science brings. The usual feeling of “where have all my regular birds gone” followed by the joy a pair of blue tits bring when they appear in the nick of time to make the cut. The red kites last week were undoubtedly magnificent, but when you’ve been sitting freezing your proverbial off for an hour, the sight of a pair of blue tits can be just as rewarding.

I did our garden count on Sunday, an unfortunately blustery day, which I presume is what put a lot of our birds off; rather than just sheer wilfulness to avoid being counted. In the end I only recorded 27 birds of 7 species – way below our garden norm and less even than I can see just glancing out now.  But data is data, so I hope our paltry count will still be of use. So all I saw was:

  • 14 sparrows – there may actually have been double that but, they were in the bushes and impossible to count more for certain.
  • 2 collared doves
  • 1 wood pigeon
  • 2 magpies
  • 1 blackbird
  • 5 jackdaws
  • 2 blue tits

I did try to take photos of those that landed on the bird table, but our overgrown teasels were flapping about in the wind in my line of sight, so I only managed one of the jackdaws.

The blue tits were a bit easier as they were feeding in the apple tree closer to the house.

While, I watched a mainly empty garden, Chris took himself off to his workplace and did the Birdwatch there. Bird envy is a terrible thing, so I tried to be pleased for him when he came back with these photos of a Grey Wagtail and Chaffinch.

So that’s it over for another year. Apparently this year was the 40th anniversary of the Big Garden Birdwatch. It started as a survey just for children to do, but thankfully us adults are allowed to join in now too. Our garden birds often seem to make themselves scarce during this annual count, but it still gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction to know that we’re contributing to a really useful bit of science. And sitting just quietly watching the wildlife in your garden for an hour, with no interruptions or distractions is no bad thing either!

 

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – A Welsh Day Trip

Barcud Coch & Cwm Elan – well I hope I spelled them right (now I’m also worrying that I’ve spelled “spelled” wrong – should it have been spelt?) – or in English, red kites and the Elan Valley for a fantastic day out. We headed over to the Elan Valley first as several friends had recommended it as being well worth a visit. We somewhat underestimated how much was there and only had time to drive around about half of it, but the half we did see was amazing. The Elan & Claerwen valleys have been dammed in 6 places and the result is beautiful reservoirs set in even more beautiful countryside.

Our visit was on a bit of a dreary day weather-wise, but it had the advantage of giving everything a beautiful misty (bordering on foggy) atmosphere.

There was snow on some of the highest peaks, but nothing to hamper our exploration. In places the road was lined by avenues of tall trees, but elsewhere the views were pretty breath taking.

None of the dams were actually flowing on our visit, but hopefully next time we go back they might be. We found a well-kept (and surprisingly empty) bird hide, from which we could just about make out some ducks in the distance – too far away to get decent photos, but just close enough to identify them as a male (bottom) and female (top) goldeneye.

After the dams, we headed back through the small town of Rhayader to go to the Red Kite Feeding Station at Gigrin Farm. We’d pre-booked spaces in their photographic hide and had to be there by 2pm for the feeding. Gigrin Farm have been feeding red kites since the early 1990s. Having started with just a few pairs, they now regularly have over 300 red kites coming to the feeding station. So we were expecting a lot of kites, but have honestly never seen anything quite like it.

As we approached the hides, we spotted a huge white bird in the distance across the field.  Turned out it was a leucistic red kite; leucistic birds are not the same as albinos as they still have pigment in their eyes. Apparently up to 1% of the Welsh red kites are actually white or partially white.

As 2pm drew closer we could see more birds amassing in the surrounding trees. They clearly all knew what time the food was due.

2pm on the dot and a tractor appeared to dish out the meat for the birds. Within seconds the sky was full of swirling kites – literally hundreds of them. Chris took a video just with his phone which gives some idea of the sheer number of birds filling the sky.

I then tried to film them as they swooped down to pick up the meat. They are so fast it looks as if the film has been speeded up, which it hasn’t.

Initially we thought this was great and we were going to get loads of amazing photos as they were all so close. Then we discovered the problem – there were so many and they moved so fast, it was impossible to focus on just one and get a nice sharp photo. We can now understand why small birds flock together in large numbers to confuse predators; this massive flock of kites had the same effect confusing us photographers. So although we took over 750 photos between us, I don’t think a single one is as crisp and clear as we would have liked. In our defence we weren’t helped by the dull overcast weather and it may have been better on a sunny day.

Having said all of that, it was still an absolutely stunning spectacle. Once we stopped worrying about the photos and just stood back and watched, it was just incredible. We have seen red kites before of course, but never so close up. I hadn’t realised how huge they are; their wingspan is pushing 2 metres!

The numbers swooping down at any one time were incredible.

This next photo looks like it is a composite shot of 4 birds, but is actually 4 in a row, all swooping down and off again one after another.

When viewed in the sky they almost formed an abstract pattern silhouetted against the sky, wings pointing in every conceivable direction.

Their aerial acrobatics were phenomenal, twisting and turning as they dived. They’d scoop up a piece of meat in their talons, then bend over to transfer the prize to their mouths to eat.

Here are a few more photos of them for no other reason other than they are really photogenic birds.

The white kite that we’d seen as we arrived put in several appearances, easy to spot amongst the more usual coloured ones. He/she appeared to have a number tag on his wing, so may be part of some study.

Red kites of course weren’t the only birds of prey making the most of the meaty picnic. We saw several buzzards watching from the trees. Perhaps because they are slightly smaller than the red kites, they are content to wait their turn.

We didn’t see any come down while we were there (although to be honest there may have been some amongst the melee of red kites), but we did see this one glide beautifully into the tree, displaying its gorgeous fan shaped tail.

And of course there were large members of the crow family making the most of the opportunity too. Initially we thought they were all carrion crows, but I think there were a few rooks lurking in there too – distinguishable by their paler beaks and pointier looking heads.

Final treat of the day – a heron flew lazily (in comparison to the kites at least) across the field and landed in a tree.

Hopefully we can go back to see the kites again in the summer when the light should be better and we can perhaps get crisper photos. But in the meantime we’ve got the memories of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles we’ve ever seen.