That’s one way to gauge insect numbers

As I write, the male blackbird is sitting under a big lavender bush, where it has been since I looked out at first light. It is singing quietly to itself, a melodic sub-song, rich, fluting and varied, lovely to hear. This has been happening for a few weeks now, the blackbird spending several hours a day under that lavender. If I open the door it stares at me, but does not move, and seems content with its spot. Maybe the proximity of the hedgehog box with the dish of crushed suet balls is an attraction, it seems likely.The female blackbird also likes the hedgehog box and spent a lot of time in there over the summer

In the woods, where we’re now spending more time, I like to observe the developing ecosystem and see what wildlife has taken up residence amongst the trees. Since reading just over a year ago about the alarming decline in insect biomass, it was something which has been on my mind and I had wondered about the insect numbers in that woodland. On Monday, I had an unplanned glimpse of the insects living there. The back story is that a friend expressed great interest in some photographs I showed her of a project by two photographers, Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen, who photographed seniors adorned with scavenged organic materials such as twigs, grass and seaweed. Some of the headdresses were quite dramatic and my friend said she wanted to try the idea out for herself, leading to me offering to gather any suitable materials I came across in the woods.

That day, tall dried flowering stems of dock stood out and I imagined a striking bonnet made of them, with the stems pointing outward like a rolled-up hedgehog. A bundle was cut and put into the car, along with some distorted ash whips and strings of ivy. I should have taken them out of the car when we got home, but it was raining at the time so I didn’t and then I forgot and they were left in there for several hours. That evening, Karl went out to bring our boots in and the interior car lights revealed curtains of cobwebs hanging within, tiny spiders at the centre of each, threads attached to every surface. He did his best to remove as many of the spiders and their webs as he could.

The next morning, setting off to work, we saw that despite the previous night’s efforts, the inside of the car was again festooned with cobwebs. Tiny spiders were everywhere, crawling on the windscreen, the ceiling, the seats, the dashboard, you name it. We managed to get another 30 or so out using a *soft brush and hoped for the best before setting off but, as the journey progressed, it became clear we had actually missed the majority of the wildlife that had taken up residence. On the drive, small things crawled and dangled in our peripheral vision, as the warming car brought them out of their refuges. Oh, how we laughed. Once at the woods, we did manage to repatriate most of those still in the car and I wondered if they’d find more dock stems to climb up.

How to react to finding the car full of small flying and crawling creatures? You can be annoyed or take the opportunity to see what’s there. The spiders were mostly too small to identify, but there were a good number of types, from orb spiders to wolf and jumping spiders, plus others I have no doubt missed. The spiders were young ones and must have been waiting for the right breeze so they could balloon off to new habitats. Then there were the insects. There were many small flies and gnats, a number of small brown moths, ladybirds, three hawthorn shield bugs (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale), two common green shield bugs (Palomena prasina), a few bright Harlequin bugs (Lygaeus equestris) and a cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis). This last one was tangled in my hair and could have been there for a while, so I’m not sure if it came with the dock stems or from elsewhere.

A cardinal beetle, but not the one that was in my hair. I picked it out of my hair and dropped it on the table, then noticed the legs

The result of my forgetfulness has been eye-opening, for I now have a better idea of what lives in the autumnal stems of flowering docks, but it is not a lesson I’m keen to repeat. There are still spiders in the car.

* A bee brush, used for gently brushing bees out of harm’s way so they aren’t injured by the beekeeper’s actions. These brushes mimic animal hair and I’ve found them excellent for picking up spiders/bees/wasps that have come indoors – whatever it is clings to the hairs and can be removed without harm. The one I use is reserved for this use as we now have softer brushes for the bees.

A bee brush

Birds, hedgehogs and the dark secret of a butterfly

When the drought finally broke here, I realised that the hedgehog food was getting waterlogged and needed to be under cover. A small ramshackle structure was made, with little doorways suitable for hedgehogs to go in and out and they took to it right away. They did make a mess in there, as they tend to wherever they are, but at least their food stayed dry. It didn’t take long for the birds to find this box and the blackbirds, especially the female, began spending large parts of their day in or around it. They had the food the hedgehogs hadn’t eaten, shelter and a large tray of fresh water just outside the door, so they made the most of it. That the box was so near to the front door didn’t seem to bother them at all and I was able to take a few photographs of the female in her new roost.

The female blackbird in her new roost

The weather is still fairly mild and the hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) have yet to hibernate – indeed some are still working to put on the weight they need to see them through till spring – so we are following their lead and still putting food out. I am no longer giving cat food, but crushed suet balls as advised by someone I spoke to from the Wildlife Trusts, who told me that suet balls provide a good fatty boost for hogs needing to gain weight in autumn. Conveniently for the birds, hedgehogs don’t seem to clear the dish and leave a lot of crumbs which the birds then finish up during the day. All that needs doing is to wash the dish and reload it. I’m glad that the box is being used during daylight hours by birds, it makes me smile to see them roosting in there and taking daytime naps.

Hedgehog eating breakfast

Something I’ve realised in the last few months of watching hedgehogs is that they aren’t very bright. One night, we surprised one of the juveniles which has been visiting and rather than run away or curl into a ball, it just stuck its head into the gap in a broken chimney pot and stood there looking silly.

Imagine that silly hedgehog with just its head the gap. Yes, we can still see you!

Coming to butterflies. One surprised me the other day and in a rather distasteful manner (if you’re eating, stop reading now). I was sitting in the sunshine in a wildish area of a large garden, enjoying my lunchtime sandwiches, when a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) alighted in the long grass a couple of metres away, its proboscis uncurling and curling up again. How lovely, I thought, and wondered what it could have found. Late flowering daisies, perhaps? Some remaining dew drops? It was certainly working away at something. Thankfully, by the time had I finished eating and got up to see what it had been doing it had flown away, otherwise I might have been sick there and then. Not a late daisy, nor a drop of dew, but fresh dog shit. Now that I know of this habit, delicious as it may be from their point of view, I can never see Red Admirals as I did previously, nor other butterflies for that matter. They are no longer innocent and beautiful sippers of nectar, they eat faeces.

Not so innocent!

Feeding hungry hedgehogs

At the start of August, we realised that hedgehogs ((Erinaceus europaeus) were living in the courtyard, probably under one of the woodsheds. Karl saw a young one out in the day near a dish of water and thought it must have been looking for a drink. They shouldn’t be out during the day, so action was needed. We started by putting out other sources of water as well as suitable food, cat food in this instance.

The hedgehog family have breakfast together

Please, never, ever put out milk for hedgehogs, they cannot digest it and it makes them ill. There is advice about what to feed them here.

It turned out that we had a family of hedgehogs living right here that we hadn’t known about, a mother and two young ones. Given how hot and dry it’s been this summer, they must have been having a hard time finding enough to eat. There is always water available here, but we had only been feeding birds and not mammals – that had to change.

One of the young hogs has a drink

I have little experience of caring for hedgehogs, but found useful information on The Hedgehog Preservation Society‘s website and on Hedgehog Street. We put food and water near to the house so that we could watch over our guests and check the young ones were growing and that all were getting enough to eat and drink. That started on August 2 and has continued every night since. The hedgehogs arrive one at a time, gather around the dish of food and eat for a good half hour, sometimes longer, going from food to water and back again. Once they’ve had enough, they wander off, one by one, through the flower bed and go under the gap in the gate to explore and, hopefully, find natural food.

When talking to my dad about it all he said we ought to name them, so we have. How do you choose a name for a hedgehog, though? Apart from the mother, we don’t know what sex they are and, in any case, human names didn’t seem quite right so we had to think. Eventually, we decided on descriptive names that relate to behaviours we’ve seen. I feel more comfortable with this – calling them names like George or Susan wouldn’t tell you who was being talked about.

Let’s have some introductions. The first night we saw the mother hedgehog, we inadvertently frightened her and sent her rushing for cover. Her name is Runs Fast. The smallest hedgehog has a tendency to climb into the food dish, so is called Eats in Dish. To start with, the middle hedgehog invariably arrived at the bowl last, so we called it Late for Breakfast. If they change what they’re doing we might pick new names, but we’ll probably stick with the names we chose first.

Runs Fast and Eats in Dish

The Prodigal Robin

I wrote at the end of April that we hadn’t seen the robin for two weeks, this after he had been visiting almost every day since late 2014. There was a brief gap in attendance in early summer 2015, when he lost a territory dispute, but he returned in the autumn and, apart from a few days here and there, had been in coming to us every day. Then, in mid-April he disappeared and I thought we’d see him no more.

The robin looking very smart last year

Last Sunday, the 11th, he surprised us by suddenly reappearing, flying to a favourite perch in the garage and from there to his usual spot for eating mealworms. We didn’t have any mealworms at that point, so offered mix seed which he accepted and we then went out to get supplies in. He was looking scruffy and rather thin and we wondered what had caused him to leave such a well-provisioned life. He had a secure territory, a mate, plenty of food, so why depart from that? Maybe his mate was predated and he decided to explore elsewhere. I’m amazed that no other robin took over his patch and he didn’t come back finding he needed to fight in order to regain it. It amuses me to think he took the opportunity to return to the Philosophy Robin status we imagined for him during the first two years, when he didn’t appear to have a mate.

Screen capture from video of the first mealworms after his return. Looking rather scruffy!

This time, the robin was absent for four months and we will never know what he got up to or where he went, but it’s good to see him back. He’s dropped straight back into his old routine and seems to still recognise the few phrases we’ve habitually used. Calling out ‘Mealworms!’ elicits a quick bob and on hearing the invitation ‘Come on then!’ he will fly from the woodshed into the garage and on to the day’s favoured perch.

There is no knowing the ways of a wild bird and this one continues to puzzle us.

Testing the water – flying insects seem to prefer dirty water

At home, I have, like many people, been making sure there is ample water available to wildlife during this hot dry weather. I’m offering a variety of choices, though all dishes have twigs or stones in them, so that insects who fall in have a means of escape. There is deeper water for birds wishing to bathe and shallow water for insects. The birds prefer deeper water, which is what I expected but, so far, a dish made up to look like a dirty puddle is the one the bees, wasps and flies are going to.

This is the favoured water source for bees, wasps and flies

The water is approximately 0.5cm to 1cm deep with twigs and leaves in it. I had heard from a fellow bee-keeper that bees prefer dirty water and what I see appears to bear this out.

A wasp drinks at the ‘dirty puddle’ dish

Rusty at the blog Honey Bee Suite speculates that not only is dirty water more apparent to bees, because they smell it more easily than see it, they are also looking for nutrients not available in clean water. This also fits in with bees scratching about in wet compost last year – I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but they must have been drinking from the compost.

Bees on wet compost

As Rusty says: ‘If you want to provide a water source for your bees, keep it shallow, provide stepping stones or rafts, and wait for the slime to appear’. Yep, that does the trick!

First bee swarm of 2018 arrives

Having four bee swarms arrive in the Magnolia tree last year, we’ve been impatiently waiting to see if this ‘magic bee tree’ will attract more this year. It is said that ‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay’ and it would have been good if one had arrived then, as an early swarm has more time to settle and grow. This year, however, May did not bring a swarm, at least not that we saw and our swarm collector friend, Steph, had no call outs. It would have to be ‘A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon’ – not as good as May, but good enough.

A swarm from May 2017

Last year at home, we tried out a DIY swarm box in the hopes of attracting a colony searching for a new home and it worked. Only a short time after we fixed the box in the Magnolia a swarm moved in. This year, Steph wanted to try a ready-made swarm box – this is made of waterproof papier-mâché and looks much like a cardboard plant pot with a lid. You put some swarm lure inside (the ‘homing’ pheromone, Nasonov), hang the box in a likely tree and wait.

The new swarm box with scouts around the door

June was into the second week and there were still no swarms, but then the 11th dawned warm, dry and still, a good bee day. Late in the afternoon, Steph happened to visit and we went into the garden where, as luck would have it, we noticed bees active around the hole of the swarm box, enough that we thought a swarm had already moved in. The box was swaying as if it hung in a breeze, though the air was still. I wonder now if scout bees were carrying out some final measuring up, flying from wall to wall, to make absolutely sure the space was the right size before summoning the rest of the colony. I can’t think what else would cause the box to sway that way. We pulled up garden chairs and sat admiring them before Steph left, saying she’d come back later and collect the new colony.

Lowering the swarm box – they’ll be transferred into the small hive

There were a lot of bees around the swarm box entrance but they were only the fore-runners. An hour so after Steph left, the swarm proper arrived and we had the thrilling opportunity of watching them move in. As seen last year, first the swarm circles the tree for several minutes, presumably for the bees to orient themselves, then they cluster at the doorway and gradually make their way inside. For the beekeeper, all that needs to be done, is to transfer the colony to a hive and move it to an apiary once the bees have settled.

The bees moving into the swarm box

Delightful as it was to see the bees arrive, there was another sight possibly even better and certainly one of the most endearing I have seen for a long time. As the huge swirling mass of bees filled the air, down on the ground beneath the tree a male blackbird stood alone, gazing around himself, turning his head from side to side in bewilderment. He was very upright, eyes wide, his feathers pulled close to his body. I have never seen a bird so clearly wondering what on earth was going on, it was captivating.

The swarm clusters in the lid of the box

What’s happened to the robin?

The birds I spend most time around, the robins and blackbirds, have suddenly changed their behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, a pair of blackbirds and a pair of robins were coming daily for mealworms and had been for many months, but all of them have become very shy. The blackbirds stayed away for a week before coming to ask for worms again and I haven’t seen either of the robins for nearly two weeks now. Are they just busy? Have they been predated? There is no way to tell, but their absence is notable.

What has become of the bold little chap? 

Now that I don’t see him at all, I find I miss the bold male robin. I hear the familiar song nearby, but no robin flies to me. A few times I’ve stood and looked into the trees and the hedge at the back to see if he’s lurking, but he isn’t. Please tell me he hasn’t been tortured to death by a cat with nothing better to do! Maybe he’ll come back after a break, as happened in 2015 when he had a territory dispute in spring, but returned in the autumn. Maybe we’ve seen the last of him, we’ll see.

This time last year

For anyone saying to themselves, ‘But, it’s a bird!’ – well observed, it’s a bird, though the feathers and wings are quite a give-away, the beak too. No Brownie points there.


The robin that came for lunch

Working in the woods during the cold weather, I can’t help but notice that certain birds come closer to me and may even follow me about. Wrens, usually extremely shy around humans, become quite bold in their search for food and can be seen flitting in and out of the brash structures being made in the woods.

A wren forages under a leaf

Blackbirds notice that people picking up brash disturbs the leaf litter, saving them the effort of doing it themselves, and they will follow in the wake of the dragged branches to pick up the insects that have been revealed. As is so often the case, it is the robin that steals the show.

Even in the snow, the robin makes itself known

I don’t know if it is the same robin, but I’ve been followed about the woods by a robin since I started work there in late 2014. It hops about the structures being built and will peep out at me from the interior. Sometimes it sits nearby and sings a quiet, sweet song, so quiet that surely only I can hear it which makes it feel like the song is for the bird and me alone.

The robin that kept us company in December 2014. Is it the same one? Who can tell. 

They are pleasing company, these little birds, and never more so than in the cold winter months when they come close to take advantage of the treasures revealed by brash being moved. They also watch us eat and have learned to recognise the little waxed canvas pouch I keep nuts and dried fruit in, paying keen interest as I bring it from my pocket. What I do next sounds a bit disgusting, but the birds appreciate it – I take some fruit and nut, chew it up small, drop the bolus to ground and move away a few metres. In moments the robin comes to partake of the partially puréed treat. This has been going on for many weeks now and it feels somewhat like playing the role of a bird parent.

The pot of worms set out for the robin

At home, me and Karl talked about the woodland robin and decided to try offering it some of the live mealworms the ‘home’ robin has been enjoying for the last few years. I found a little plastic tub for the worms to go in and we took them to the woods with us the next day. We started work and waited for the robin to appear, then primed it by getting out the pouch of nuts and dried fruit and offering a chewed glob. To this was added a few mealworms and the open tub was set nearby. As we’d hoped, the robin ate some of the chewed mix and then went for the mealworms, after which it looked into the tub and started helping itself.

Cooking lunch in the kitchen area we set up in the woods

What happened next was charming. At lunchtime, we moved to an area we use for cooking, where there are various upturned logs, some with slabs of stone on them. It’s a very pleasant spot for eating under the trees and we’ve often made a merry group there with others we work alongside.

The kitchen area in morning mist

The robin has been known to follow us there, where it will sit in a nearby larch and fly down for dropped morsels. On this occasion, we gave the robin its own place on one of the slabs and put out some worms and the open tub. As we ate our hot rolls, the robin stood nearby and ate its worms. Occasionally we looked at each other. Afterwards it perched nearby and sang quietly for about three quarters of an hour.

And that was the story of the day we had lunch with a robin.

Bon appétit, robin!


Fuchsia buffet offered to Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillars

Every now and then, a friend or neighbour will come to my door, or send me a picture, and ask me to look at some creature they’ve found in their garden. It’s always interesting to see how people react to what they’ve found; excitement, panic and concern are all shown. I’m ever curious, so it’s always a pleasure to see the mystery and even better if I can identify it.

Flying ants emerging from under paving

Often, it will be something quite common – someone might be disturbed by a mass of flying ants emerging from a gap at the base of a wall, or they’ll be fretting about a hedgehog tucked up and fast asleep under the leafy canopy of a herbaceous perennial. The hedgehog was a lovely sight, its spiny body rising and falling as it breathed slowly in its sleep. The neighbour was worried that something might be wrong, but hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep in the day time.

Ants crawl up a wall after hatching out – sometimes people find this alarming

Elsewhere, in early summer, I might be shown the gag-inducing larvae of lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii), which disguise themselves with a thick, blobby layer of their own excrement. It may be an effective camouflage, but the sight makes me nauseous.

Lily beetle larvae and the excrement they cover themselves with. I wonder how long it took the species to come up with this idea?

Adult lily beetle

The most recent query came a week or so ago. A neighbour, Jennifer, came to the door urgently asking me to look at a photograph of a creature she’d found on her back door mat. As she held the picture for me to look at, she was excitedly asking, ‘What is it, what is it?’. It was the caterpillar of an elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor), so called because the caterpillar’s head and mouth parts somewhat resemble an elephant’s trunk. When the caterpillar is alarmed, it draws its head into its thorax, which then appears bulbous and shows a pattern like two large eyes. Jennifer’s garden contained none of the favourite food of hawk moth larvae, rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), so I suspected it had gone for what they will eat in gardens and had been chewing through the foliage of her Fuchsias.

Jennifer’s elephant hawk moth caterpillar

We walked to her house and found the caterpillar still on the coconut door mat, looking not unlike a tiny stuffed toy. We knelt down for a closer look and it raised its head as if to stare back. A coconut doormat isn’t a good place for a caterpillar that prefers eating Fuchsias and rosebay willowherb, so I suggested that we re-locate it to my garden as there are Fuchsias there too. I thought that one in particular, a large and, to me, uninspiring, specimen of ‘Whiteknights Pearl‘, should please it. Carefully, we picked up the caterpillar and put it into an empty plant pot, then walked to my garden and gently laid it on a stem of the plant, where it hopefully had a good meal before burrowing into the soil and overwintering as a pupa. I went to look for it later, but didn’t find it. Maybe it had hidden itself amongst the foliage, hopefully it hadn’t been predated. I had been going to evict ‘Whiteknights Pearl’, with its pale, insipid flowers, but have now changed my mind – it can become a nursery plant for elephant hawk moth caterpillars.

Check out those feet – like a stuffed toy

The Turkish pot is back in use

I wrote at the start of the month about an old cooking pot I found in a second hand shop. It’s a lovely shop, though a far cry from the second hand shops I knew growing up in the 60s and 70s. They were proper junk shops then, where you’d find a clutter of dusty rubbish and treasure. This shop is run by nice ladies who collect ‘vintage’ objects on their travels and clean them up a bit – you’ll find everything a house would hold, from large items of French furniture to cutlery, clothes and jewellery.

My prized Peugeot Frères hachoir

My favourite acquisition was an old French hachoir made by Peugeot Frères, who also made cars, which has a fine steel blade and beautifully turned handles. It has a good weight and makes short work of any fine chopping. Now it has competition in the form of ‘the pot’. I should say that I generally visit this shop after getting my hair cut, partly because it’s right next door and I can’t resist going in there to see what new treasures they’ve got. Every six months or so I might buy something.

When I first saw the pot it was sitting on the ground in the courtyard at the back of the shop. I glanced at it, thought it interesting, but passed by. Six weeks later it was still there, so I stopped for a closer look. Funny looking thing, hand-hammered copper with a tin lining. A bit scratched and worn, and the lid only fitted in one position, but intriguing, I’d never seen anything like it before. 12 quid, not bad. Tempting. I picked it up and felt the weight, the copper had a decent thickness and could no doubt be cleaned up a bit. ‘Buy me, lady‘ said the pot, so I did and took it home where it sat on a windowsill for a couple of weeks while I thought about what to do with it.

The pot in its original state

During that couple of weeks, I spent hours scouring the internet trying to find similar items, but failed to come up with anything quite the same. There were similar pots, however, and all were Turkish from the time of the Ottoman Empire. The best I could come up with was to place it in the early 1900s. Who had used it, when and where, and how did it end up in that Oxfordshire second hand shop? So many questions. Anyway, having tentatively decided on a rough age and origin, I thought about using it, but was wary of the worn tin lining, so started looking at getting the inside re-tinned. There are a few re-tinning companies in the UK and some of them proudly announce that they re-tin copper cookware for royalty, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. As luck would have it, I came across a small business in Cornwall, Newlyn Tinning, run by Steve Pearse. On the website, this paragraph caught my eye:

I take great pride in following my predecessors of this trade and closer to home, the great tradition of coppersmithing in Newlyn where many fishermen in hard winter times turned their hands to producing some of the finest industrial art copper work from the late 19th century arts & crafts era onwards. A trade still going strong today.’

Cornwall has been a centre of tin mining and metal work since the Bronze Age and I wanted to support the continuation of that. Newlyn Tinning looked right, so I got in touch, discussed the details and cost, which was very reasonable, and sent the pot off to Steve. Three weeks later the pot was returned gleaming and transformed, both inside and out. The previously dark and scruffy exterior remained un-tinned, as requested, but had been cleaned and polished to a rich glow, while the inside was freshly tinned. It looked beautiful and still old, as if there was real history in there. I was delighted.

The transformed Ottoman pot

The Ottoman Empire. Image source

What to cook in it? It would feel right to cook something fitting and traditional. I looked at a map of the Ottoman Empire in 1900 and saw that it covered a wide area, from southern Europe to north Africa and parts of the Middle East. Quite a lot of choice there in terms of cuisine. The pot holds 2.5l at the line just above the indentation, so big enough for a family meal. I decided on a casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils, flavoured with ras el hanout, saffron and bay, served with couscous and green beans. It was delicious and we raised a glass to Steve the tinner.

A casserole of chicken, apricots and lentils – delicious!

It pleases me very much to think of this pot being put to use once again and I feel, however tenuously, connected to all those who have, over who knows how many years, stirred a meal in it. Long may that continue.