Autumnwatch – Malvern Style

I’ve not managed to blog much this month, but it’s not been due to any lack of activity in the garden. We’ve both been suffering from a stinker of a cold and our wildlife watching has been largely confined to the views from the sofa. Fortunately the TV offerings have made up for the lack of outdoor activity. Blue Planet II returned this weekend and “blue” us away (sorry couldn’t resist the pun!).  David Attenborough was a huge influence on me as a child and probably one of the reasons I originally became a biologist – and he’s still got it. Inspirational as ever – false killer whales befriending dolphins, fish that leapt into the air to hunt seabirds and ones that used tools to open clams. All absolutely incredible.

Not only Blue Planet, but we had Autumn Watch last week too. Not quite the same wow factor, but great stuff all the same. The beauty of Autumn (and Spring) Watch is that it is British wildlife, so we’ve either seen the animals featured or can at least hope to see them one day. They often have projects or surveys that the public can contribute to and last week’s series was no exception. They launched a project called Seabird Watch which aims to get the public to analyse thousands of images of seabird colonies. So I’ve been having a go; it’s not as easy as it first seems, but it is very addictive! Here’s one of my efforts – lots of kittiwakes and guillemots.

If anyone wants to have a go there are still thousands of images to analyse – go to

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/seabirdwatch

Autumnwatch of course featured all sorts of mammals and birds and all manner of fancy equipment for recording them. We don’t exactly have the same budget as the BBC, but I did go wild this week and bought a new gadget – this mini camera. It’s not much bigger than a 2 pence piece!

It’s so small we can fix it to twigs in the apple tree like this:

Of course like all new gadgets it’s taking a bit of getting used to. First few attempts turned out to be upside down. Second set were the right way up, but not exactly pointing in the right direction. I did get these starlings; although they’re not really taking centre stage they do at least demonstrate that it works and has the potential to get some decent footage.

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I have now managed to fix the date, so it doesn’t look like we’re in a time warp from 2 years ago, but I still need to work out the night vision and motion detection bit. It’s made a bit difficult by the badly translated instructions, but hopefully I’ll get there in the end. In the meantime here’s some nice footage using the good old trail camera – not quite the majestic owls from Autumnwatch, but a cute blue tit having a bath instead.

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Again we may not get the badgers and foxes of Autumnwatch, but we do have hedgehogs! I recently built another hedgehog feeding station (the last one having gone for a burton when a magpie knocked the trail camera over onto it and smashed it!) Fortunately the hedgehogs seem quite happy with mark II and this fairly large one has been a regular visitor.

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I was surprised though to see this much smaller one here for the first time. Hedgehogs need to be at least 450g by now to have enough fat reserves to make it through the winter. So if I can find this one again I will try and weigh him to check that he’ll be OK.

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The garden is definitely feeling very autumnal now and we even had our first frost yesterday morning with a chilly 0.1C overnight. The leaves have nearly all gone from the apple tree and my beloved moths are now few and far between. Marking the season though it is Halloween tonight and our allotment produced 3 whopping great pumpkins – the biggest of which here is seen with wine bottle and lemon for scale rather than some weird recipe I’m concocting.

Last year I carved the pumpkin into a bird feeder, but this one was a bit big to hang  up, so it’s just a regular scary pumpkin face. There’s something very satisfying about having grown our own pumpkins.

Finally from Halloween to Bonfire Night and a plea for everyone to look out for hedgehogs (and other small mammals and amphibians). If you’re going to have a bonfire – ideally build it on the day it’s going to be lit. If that’s not possible, then please check it thoroughly before lighting – lift up the base and look and listen for signs of hedgehogs. And please just light it from one side to give any hoggies in there a chance to escape from the other side.

Patio Patch

The weather seems to have been interminably grey lately and not at all tempting for venturing out, so I’ve been observing a very local patch – the patio right outside our living room windows. Part of the reason for this focus has been my ongoing battle with our resident wren. I love wrens but this one seems determined to taunt me and thwart my every attempt to get a decent photo. So when I spotted him bobbing up and down outside our patio doors, I thought I’d finally stand a chance. Forty to fifty photos later and I had another large array of blurry shots (admittedly some of the blur may actually be due to the less than sparkling state of my patio windows!) These are the best of a very bad selection.

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Since he returned to the same spot several times, I came up with another cunning plan – leave the trail camera pointed at the patio area. Although he did do his best to avoid the area in front of the trail cam, I did eventually get the few indistinct video clips edited together below.

Patio wren

I tried roping Chris in on my wren wrangling mission. The best he managed was this one of the wren running along the fence (gleefully mocking as he goes no doubt).

wren-running

The upside of my on-going struggles was that I ended up filming quite a lot of other animals on the patio, at least one of which was a surprise. I’d been putting some bird food down (to further tempt the wren), but clearly birds aren’t the only ones partial to bird food. This mouse appeared several nights in a row, making the most of the free buffet. This area is literally right in front of our patio doors, but of course at night we have the lights on inside, so can’t see the mouse outside. It does however explain why our cat is always staring out at night!

mouse on patio video

We’ve always had birds pecking about on the patio for insects, but with the bird food out, their numbers increased. Magpies, blackbirds, starlings, robins, blackcap (female only), sparrows and dunnocks all took advantage of the new food supply there and all got caught on the trail camera. Here are just a few stills taken from the videos.

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patio-starlings

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Since the birds were getting accustomed to coming closer to the house, it seemed the ideal time to try out something I’d seen on another blog. Wildlife Kate had set up an ingenious feeding platform using just a plastic ladle and her trail camera (For Kate’s amazing blog: http://www.wildlifekate.co.uk/my-blog/4588864364). She got such great photos, I thought I’d have a go.  So with a bit of help from Chris (actually he pretty much did it all) I set the ladle up on a post in the middle of the patio. Kate had got a lovely selection of dainty little birds – for the first few days all I got were hulking great jackdaws, who were really too big and too close for the camera to focus on properly. Still I do quite like some of the photos – after all you don’t often get the chance to be quite so eye-to-eye with a jackdaw.

Eventually the birds did start getting smaller, probably attracted by the flapping of the jackdaws. First came the blackbirds and starlings.

Starling on ladle

Then eventually a great tit, the female blackcap and the sparrows. The sparrows mainly benefitted from all the food the jackdaws tended to knock off the ladle onto the ground beneath; but a few did venture up to feed directly from it.

One final, slightly weird photo of a starling landing. I love the way its wings appear surreally wavy (and slightly nightmarish), presumably because it was moving faster than the camera shutter could cope with!

Thank you so much to Wildlife Kate for her idea of the ladle cam, which was brilliant in its simplicity and yet so effective. Kate’s images are far better than mine and well worth a look, but this is something anyone with a trail camera can try for themselves.

So all in all I managed to attract quite a lot into my patio patch with very little effort. And the real beauty of it all, now that the birds (and mice) are confident coming this close to the house, is that I can watch it all through the patio doors – quite literally from the comfort of my own sofa!

Big Lazy Review of the Year

Can’t believe 2016 is all but over. It’s been an awful year in many respects (depressing national and international voting outcomes, various terrorist atrocities, plus the loss of some truly great people), but our garden has provided welcome relief throughout. We may live in the middle of Malvern, but the garden is quiet and peaceful and the wildlife never fails to cheer me up. So here’s a bit of a round up of some of the highlights from 2016.

The year began with one of the many “citizen science” projects we try to participate in – the Big Garden Bird Survey. Throughout the year we also took part in the Big Butterfly Count, the Garden Bioblitz, the Garden Moth Scheme and Moth night as well as submitting assorted records for bees, ladybirds, dragonflies and even a glow worm.

30DAYSWILD_ID1 blackThe biggest project was taking part in the Wildlife Trusts 30 Days Wild Challenge. This ran throughout June and I managed to blog about something “wild” we’d done each of the 30 days. I was really chuffed when the blog made it to the final short list for the 30 Days Wild Blogger Awards. We didn’t win, but that didn’t matter as I had such fun doing it.

 

Scarlet TigerMoths were, as always, a big part of my year. The trap was out once a week throughout the summer for the Garden Moth Scheme. In the end we recorded 211 species in the garden – a new record total, which included many firsts for our garden. All beautiful, but none more so than this Tiger.

Purple Emperor 12One of my resolutions from last year was to see more butterfly species. We may not be able to attract any more species to our garden, but when we were Out & About we managed to bag 10 more species – way more than I’d hoped for. This takes our lifetime tally to 38 – only about 20 more UK species to go! Every one was a delight, but ultimately you can’t beat the Purple Emperor!

ivy-bee-7Last year we recorded 12 species of bee in the garden, which I’d thought was pretty good. This year we made it to 25! There may even have been more, but some require microscopic identification and as I don’t want to kill any, that was out. The final bee of the year was this Ivy Bee – new to Britain this species is gradually spreading north, so we were really excited to find it in our garden. Chris even got one of his Ivy Bee photos published in the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust magazine!

woodpecker-2One major innovation for the garden was our Trail Camera. Wish I’d bought one of these years ago as they are brilliant! We’ve been able to watch blue tits using the nest box, catch the squirrel stealing the bird food outside and mice stealing it in the garage, as well as watching the birds themselves feeding up close. We discovered we’d got Siskins and a Woodpecker that we’d never seen and followed Stumpy the magpie.

 

hedgehog-fredOne particular joy from the trail camera has been being able to watch our hedgehogs. We rescued 2 baby hedgehogs one boiling hot day in July, who were then cared for by our local hedgehog rescue lady. One of them (Fred) was returned to us and we watched him trundle around our garden with another older hog. We’ve now got 2 hedgehog houses and have learnt a lot about their behaviour from watching the video footage. Fingers crossed Fred and his friend survive the winter.

KestrelAs well as watching the wildlife in our garden, we were out and about quite a bit in the summer. We are lucky here to have so many wonderful nature reserves within easy distance. As well as the various new butterflies, we’ve seen slow worms and glow worms (the latter only as a larva unfortunately), kestrels, deer, puffins (admittedly we did have to go a bit further for these) and of course some beautiful countryside.

2016-12-31-14_39_48_315Last year I set out some wildlife resolutions and surprisingly we’ve actually managed to achieve some of them (wildlife resolutions are clearly much easier to follow than the ones about losing weight or cutting back on the Prosecco!) We did see more butterfly species, I did have a go at beetle trapping (not a huge success, but at least I tried), we did replace some of the naturally thriving weeds with specific butterfly/bee loving wildflowers. I even managed to identify the bats that come to the garden in the summer (Pipistrelles) thanks to another new toy, my bat detector.

We didn’t however manage to dig a new pond and the old one is getting increasingly silted up. I also haven’t got round to the new moth tattoo, although I have made some enquiries with various tattooed lorry drivers who come to my work as to where they got theirs done. (much to their bemusement I expect!)

So New Year’s resolutions for 2017?

  • The new pond has to be top of the list, before our frogs and newts give up on us totally.
  • Get video/photos of the blue tits fledging this time (assuming they nest in the garden again). Although we filmed the adults feeding, we somehow managed to miss the babies emerging, so really want to get that this year.
  • Try to bag a few more butterfly species – targets will be Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary, Duke of Burgundy and Grizzled Skipper, but more if we can manage.
  • Try and find Ivy bees at a few more sites. Don’t think there are many records for Herefordshire yet, so hopefully we can head over to my Dad’s and add a few more dots to the map.
  • Start compiling records for hoverflies in our garden – I know we get lots, but we’ve never really had a proper go at identifying them all. I feel a new obsession coming on!
  • 30 Days Wild for 2017.
  • Maybe that tattoo!

Thank you to all the people we met while out and about this year. We met some lovely people who helped us identify birds and butterflies and pointed us in the right direction when we were wandering aimlessly in search of this species or that. Thanks also to our local hedgehog lady Viv who does such an amazing job and let us have Fred back all fattened up and healthy. And thanks to everyone who’s been following the blog and to all the other bloggers that I follow and who are so inspiring. Wishing you all a happy, healthy and wildlife-filled 2017!

Stumpy the Magpie

It’s grey and a bit dreary weather-wise here in Malvern at the moment. The hedgehogs are hibernating (probably our bats too), insects are few and far between and the moth trap’s been empty the last couple of times I’ve put it out.  We’ve not even had any frosts to provide sparkly, wintery photo ops. Fortunately the birds in our garden are plentiful and greedy, so the bird feeders have provided the main interest this month. Last week we had the excitement of the woodpecker on the peanuts.

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This week we’ve turned out attentions and the trail camera towards the bird table. The bird table attracts a different set of birds to the hanging feeders, although the sparrows of course are the commonest on both. We have quite a large group of sparrows who use our garden (possibly as many as twenty, but they’re hard to count in the bushes) and at least half a dozen were using the bird table at any one time this weekend.

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Back in October we had a pair of magpies that were regular visitors to the garden. One I nicknamed Stumpy because he had none of the long tail feathers he (or she) should have had. Here’s Stumpy on the bird table about a month ago.

I’ve no idea what happened to his tail, but you can clearly see the difference between Stumpy’s rear end and a “normal” magpie in the next video. These two often appear at the table together – perhaps mates, or parent and offspring, or siblings?

The lack of tail feathers doesn’t seem to impede his flight or balance at all and he seems otherwise perfectly healthy. A quick google revealed that his tail feathers should grow back. I’ve had the trail camera pointed at the hanging feeders for a couple of weeks, so it’s only been this weekend that it’s been pointing back at the bird table. A couple of magpies once again appeared to see what was on offer. One had broken tail feathers that looked a bit shorter than the others.

magpieIs this Stumpy with his tail feathers partially regrown? I really hope so. Whoever it was, they weren’t put off their lunch by the arrival of a large jackdaw.

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The jackdaws are usually some of the first birds to appear when I restock the bird table. They always seem intelligent, shrewd birds. The one on the right here certainly wasn’t daft – he’d crammed at least 5 mealworms into his mouth before the other had got a look in.

jackdawsWe get at least 4 of them coming down to feed, although I’ve noticed one has an injured foot. He’s still eating OK, but not sure whether it will prove to be a fatal problem for him.

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The blackbirds appreciate the bird table offerings as they are not very good on the hanging feeders. Fortunately they don’t mind sharing the table with the sparrows.

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The robin on the other hand gets really quite grumpy when the sparrows land. Any larger birds and he just flies off, but with the sparrows he does his best to shoo them away.

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Watching the birds like this in the garden for a while now, I feel we’ve got a small insight into some of their life stories. Stumpy with his tail loss and regrowth, the jackdaw family with an injured member, the territorial robin defending his patch of the table. Without the trail camera we’d probably still see all these birds, but miss some of the dynamics of what was going on in our garden. It’s been worth every penny spent and every hour spent watching the videos!

Hedgehog Feeding Station

“If you build, it they will come” – not originally referring to hedgehogs, but I was hoping it would still hold true. Following my previous post about attempts to feed hedgehogs mainly ending with success at feeding neighbouring cats, I got some very helpful suggestions via Twitter. Probably the most helpful was from Paula who suggested I try out the instructions for building your own feeding station on Little Silver Hedgehog’s excellent blog (https://littlesilverhedgehog.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/build-a-hedgehog-feeding-station/)

The idea behind the feeding station is simple enough – provide a safe place for the hedgehog to eat with an entrance hole too small for the cats to get in. I’m not the most DIY-minded person, but thought I could just about manage this! So one plastic box, a pair of scissors, some sticky tape and a brick later, this was the result!

The Box

It may not be a build of great architectural beauty, but I was hoping the hedgehogs wouldn’t be too bothered by the aesthetics (or the choice of reading material I’d lined the bottom with). The catfood went at one end, but I also put a few mealworms near the entrance to try and tempt the hedgehogs to investigate further. The trail cam was set up and I just had to wait for morning to see if it worked.

In the morning I was really chuffed to find that the food had all been eaten – of course the question was – Who or What ate it? Trail cam footage first showed the usual cunning cat peering at the box and looking mildly annoyed that it couldn’t get to the food. Then at about 12:40 am the hedgehog appeared to view my handiwork for the first time.

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He or she was cautious at first, peering in and eating the mealworms I’d put near the entrance (or possibly eating the huge slug that had also found its way in)

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Then followed a few more nervous entries into the box until by 3am our hedgehog was striding in and going straight for the food. Clearly his or her confidence was such that by the morning all the food had gone.

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I am so pleased with this – it has way exceeded my expectations, especially for a first night trial. I’ve stocked up on catfood and hopefully this success will continue throughout the summer. The only slightly annoying thing is that my trail cam will only record 15 seconds at a time when in night-time mode, but I can live with that.

I can’t thank Little Silver Hedgehog enough for her excellent advice (do check out her blog for all things hedgehog related https://littlesilverhedgehog.wordpress.com/) and Paula on Twitter for pointing me in the right direction in the first place. Social media working at its best!

 

Hungry Mouths to Feed

Hooray the robins in our garden have successfully fledged!! Two juvenile robins have been flitting around our garden all week, with the parents never very far away. They may be able to fly, but they still seem determined to sponge off Mum & Dad (typical teenagers) for as long as possible. So I’ve spent the week chasing them around the garden trying to get the perfect shot of them being fed by the doting parents. The results were mixed to say the least – if I got a perfectly focussed photo then they weren’t doing anything very interesting. If they started feeding the chicks, then in my excitement the photos came out blurred!

The adults were as always pretty easy to photograph – they seem to love the camera and pose happily on any available perch.

Robin

They’ve always taken a keen interest in whatever was out on the bird table and of late I’d seen them flying off with their bounty rather than eating it there and then, so I’d suspected chicks might have hatched. We’ve never spotted the robin nest, so perhaps they’re nesting in one of the neighbours gardens and just using us as a buffet?

Robin (3)

The fledglings appeared a week or so ago. Initially they were shy, keeping to the bushes, but have gradually got bolder. At first I thought it was just one – perhaps one fledged before the other. The one below looks particularly dejected as if it’s been told of by the adult, although it’s probably just fed up with the bank holiday weather like the rest of us!

Juvenile robins (7)

This weekend though, I started seeing two of them together (although this photo only shows one and a half fledglings!)

Juvenile robins (1)

Despite seeing the parents feed them several times, it took ages to catch them doing it somewhere where I could get a relatively clear shot with the camera. Of course when I did, the photos came out blurred – the excitement must have got to me! But you can at least see the parent is feeding a suet pellet to the eager juvenile.

Robin and baby (5)

Robin and baby (2)

They seemed to use this corner of the garden regularly to feed the young – perhaps the thorny Berberis twigs offer some protection from the neighbours cat? So I tried setting up the trail cam to capture the action – 163 videos of twigs blowing in the wind later and I got a few brief snippets of the young. They were indeed still using this area to feed them, but always it seemed just out of camera shot.

So I may not have got the perfect photo or perfect video, but the main thing is that we seem to have 2 healthy (and very greedy) fledgling robins in the garden. Fingers crossed we get the same success with the blue tits.

Siskin Surprise

The wildlife interest in our garden seems to be swinging at the moment to and fro between the moth traps and the trail cam. Last weekend the trail cam definitely came out on top though, when it threw up a complete surprise in the garden. I guess many of us put out these cameras with the vague hope that they will reveal something unexpected and this weekend ours did. It may not have captured anything super rare, but it did film a Siskin – a bird which we didn’t even know we had in the garden. Of course it would have been nice to see the Siskin in the flesh rather than just on film, but at least we know now to look out for it!

Siskin (3)

We’d hung this bird table out a week or so ago and were initially a bit annoyed that its design meant it immediately swivelled, tipping all the seeds into one corner.  But this jaunty angle actually appears to be working to our advantage, as the slope (and general instability) seems to be deterring the pigeons and larger birds and allowing the smaller ones to get a look in.

The Siskin is an attractive bird, so I tried to get some correspondingly attractive still images from the film. Unfortunately it was so intent on scoffing the sunflower seeds, that it was difficult to get an image without food hanging from its mouth, so these were the best I could do.

Siskin 1

Siskin 2

The sloping feeder attracted several other species that afternoon, although none stayed as long, or were quite so fond of their food, as the Siskin – a bird after my own heart!

Great Tit

Robin 3

Blackbird & Black Cap

 

Birds in Focus

At last I’m finally getting some photos that are not only in focus (just about), but have real live animals in them – a dream come true after a couple of weeks struggling with the new trail cam!

Blue Tit trail cam photoI still wouldn’t claim to have mastered it, but the learning curve is definitely on the up. My new 250mm close up lens has certainly helped get (not surprisingly) closer images. The downside of using this lens is that your field of view shrinks dramatically, so you’ve got to be sure you’re pointing somewhere where there’s going to be some action. For some reason I seem to nearly always position the camera slightly too low, so I’ve got lots of clips now of bird feet, while their heads tuck into the bird food out of sight of the lens! I’ve also got a lot of clips of branches shaking, as something lands just above the field of view – I swear sometimes the birds are just sitting there, rattling the twigs to torment me. This underestimation of the required lens height may have something to do with my own height (or lack of), but I can hopefully train myself out of this one.

I’ve been much more impressed with the quality of the video clips than the still photos. But what I have found is that I can often get pretty good snapshots from the videos and turn them into photos. The images of the blue tit above and long-tail tit below were both taken this way.

Long tail tit 250mm lens

 

I tried the new lens out in the garage on the mice and was delighted when it captured two of them for the first time.

Two mice trail cam imageAt least I think I’m delighted, although maybe I won’t be so keen when 2 mice become 4 become 8 etc. They are getting through a lot of bird food as it is. Putting out the trail cam these last few weeks has incurred incidental expenses that I hadn’t anticipated when I first got it. In order to maximise photo ops in the garden, I’ve increased the numbers of bird feeders, so have of course needed more bird food too. There’s also been the additional lens, plus a new ground spike for the trail cam that I hope to try out at the weekend, to get photos of some of the ground feeding birds.

I’ve also been forced for the first time in ages to do a bit of judicious pruning round the garden to get clear shots of the feeders – that tree has just too many twigs growing specifically it seems with the intent of ruining my photos! I’ve been down on my knees trimming bits of grass out of the way of that elusive perfect shot and moving stones and other debris that spoiled the look. At this rate I may even find myself weeding the garden!

But I’m sure it will all be worth it come the spring. We’re really hoping that the blue tits will nest in the bird box again this year – in which case I will be poised ready with my new trail cam skills to capture the moment. Not sure when blue tits start nesting, but spring feels like it’s on its way. Despite a very cold night last night (-4.2°C according to my latest toy – a max/min thermometer for the Garden Moth Scheme), I heard the first froggy croak in the garden this afternoon and the daffodils are almost out, so hopefully the blue tits will feel it too.

In the meantime, here’s a couple of short films of the ever-adorable Long-tailed Tits in the garden today. First film is taken with the 460mm lens and second with the 250mm.

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First frog