Tracking activity through the winter woods

Spending time in the woods after snow gives an interesting opportunity to look for signs of activity that wildlife leave behind them. It’s easy to spot where they’ve been, but not always easy to tell what the species was. Walking along one of the main paths through the woodland I’ve been working in during winter since late 2014, I spotted the footprints of a large bird and knew immediately that it was a pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). The footprints, one placed directly in front of the other, brought to mind a clear image of a male pheasant in all his flamboyant glory as he stalked along the path. Male pheasants always look slightly foolish to me; their tentative gait makes them seem uncomfortably nervous, as if they wish to be invisible, but they’re so brightly coloured that you can’t miss them. I must look kindly on them as pheasant season has not long ended and they’ve no doubt been dodging the lead shot of hunters for many weeks.

pheasant prints in snow

Walking on through the woods I spot snow that has clearly been disturbed over a large area. Patches of snow have been moved aside, revealing the leaf litter beneath. I wonder what creature did it. Was it badgers visiting the latrines we find throughout the woods? Or were they looking for food, perhaps? A slow walk and closer observation amongst them and reveals the answer, for next to almost every bare patch I see the faint footprints of a blackbird in the melting snow.

blackbird foot printsThe blackbird’s footprints

The bird’s passage between the trees, as it tossed aside the snow and moved the leaves, is very obvious and reminds of me how blackbirds throw up leaves and bark chippings in gardens. I hope it found what it was looking for, be it worms, grubs, beetles or slugs.

blackbird activity snow 2Signs of foraging

This woodland is host to a large number of fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) during winter. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia, arriving in autumn and leaving in late winter, and I first noticed them in November, when I saw a flock of them perched in a tree in a hedgerow on the nearby farm land, all of them facing the same direction. They are timid on their migration visits and fly off at the hint of a nearby human, but their presence in the woods is clear. Certain trees, often larch or pine, tell that they’ve been used for roosting and the evidence is seen in the dense scattering of droppings at the base of the favoured tree. Stand still and you won’t necessarily see the fieldfares but their voices are all around you. It is a strange cacophony of whistles and clacks and it sounds to me just like I imagine a sound effect might do in an old science-fiction B-movie, used when insectoid aliens are about to terrify some unsuspecting humans (you can hear them in this clip). One day the fieldfares might stop for me to photograph them, but that day is yet to come.

Another mystery in the woods is one created by humans. Someone tried their hand at building a shelter of sorts but it didn’t go too well and stood for less than 48 hours before collapsing in an ugly heap. It’s a little irritating because two other mounds had been taken apart to put this wreck together and we’ll need to dismantle it. It’s fairly regular for people to come into the wood and play, but they usually do a better job of it than this.

mysteryWhat the hell is that supposed to be?

By contrast, here’s one that Karl made nearly two years ago, which is still looking sturdy.

mycelium mound snowMuch better

Happy new bee year

On sunny days recently I’ve been going into the garden to check for bee activity at the hive. For many weeks now the only way to gauge if they were still there has been to look at the debris beneath the hive or press an ear to the outside and listen to the faint buzzing from within. It was with great pleasure that I looked again this last Saturday (February 3) and saw bees coming and going. There weren’t many of them, only ten at the most, but it was encouraging to see them.

bee-yellow-pollenFirst bee sighting of the year – early in the year but bringing in pollen

Yesterday, February 7, is another sunny day so I looked again and was delighted to see dozens of bees milling about on the outside of the hive and many coming in with pollen.

17-02-07_1Their first big outing of the year

Pollen is in short supply in February, but the bees clearly know where to find it. The pollen the bees were carrying was in varying shades of yellow and orange and looking at a pollen colour chart suggests that blue and yellow crocus, willow and snowdrop (Galanthus spp) flowers are the most likely to have been foraged.

17-02-07_3Spot the pollen

Willow (Salix alba) grows along the banks of the nearby river Windrush and flowers early in the year, providing a useful source of early pollen and nectar. Snowdrops and crocuses are both common in local gardens and I’ve put in quite a few more since we’ve lived here. The large-flowered snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii flowers two weeks earlier in this garden than the more common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, giving the bees a longer season of foraging those flowers.

bee in flowerYou can just see a bee in this Galanthus elwesii flower

Looking at the bees themselves, I was pleased to see shiny bodies and wings with no signs of deformity, which would indicate a problem with varroa mites. It’s hard to avoid these mites completely, but they do need controlling. I’d taken quite a lot of pictures of the activity on the hive and in a closer examination of the photos, I spotted something reddish-brown on one bee’s thorax, a varroa mite. I’ve looked very closely at all the other pictures, but haven’t seen any more.

varroa-1The bee in the centre has a varroa mite on her thorax – look for the shiny, red-brown disc

Our bee-friend, Steph, the one who came to collect the swarm last summer, gave us a device to put in the bottom of the hive. It’s a Bee Gym, and it helps the bees to scrape off the mites by themselves as they rub against the wires and ‘flippers’. You can see a Bee Gym being used here.

beegym_shopA Bee Gym

The reviews I’ve seen look positive, so it went straight into the hive and we’ve also put in a varroa board so we can count the number of mites that drop off. They’ll be prevented from crawling back into the hive by Vaseline (petroleum jelly) smeared on the board, which they’ll stick to.

varroa boardHome made varroa board smeared with Vaseline

There was a great deal of bee activity yesterday and it wasn’t easy to track the bee’s movements, but I did notice some gathered in small groups, as if gossiping, and what may have been grooming behaviour. Grooming amongst bees isn’t something I’ve seen before, so I’ll keep a look out for it. On the ground in front of the hive, I noticed three dead bees – alarming, but it’s natural for some of the bees to die over winter and some beekeepers report finding dozens or even hundreds of corpses in late winter, so there’s no reason to be concerned. On the hive itself are small streaks on the wood near the entrance, evidence of the bees answering the ‘call of nature’.

All in all, barring unavoidable calamity, it looks like a good start to the bee year.

bee shadows 2Bee shadows

Growing mushrooms for the bees

It’s winter and the garden is a quiet place without summer’s buzz. The robin and our regular pair of blackbirds attend us every day and sometimes the robin will appear to charm visitors as well as us, which is lovely. The sparrows twitter and flit from willow to Cotoneaster and back again.

robin-janOur constant companion, the robin

Winter plants are flowering – bulbs, Hellebores, the Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa); the witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) is glorious, its ribbon-like flowers glowing in the winter sun. There are a few insects to be seen, there are always bobbing gnats dancing in the air and I see the occasional bumblebee, but the honey bees are spending nearly all their time inside the hive. We probably won’t see much of them for several weeks and then the day will come when they come out to find the spring flowers. I feel a keen anticipation for that day.

hamamelis mollisHamamelis mollis brightens up a gloomy winter day 

I’m thinking about the bees and have been looking into ways of helping them to stay healthy. It was via these thoughts that I came back to something I’d read about last autumn and turned to my favourite mycologist, Paul Stamets, who, with others, has investigated how bees use fungi – you can listen to him talk here. He’d had some raised beds in his garden, which were covered in a thick layer of wood chips, and he noticed that the bees were paying a lot of attention to the chips and went to see what they were doing. He saw that they’d moved some of the wood to get at the mycelium growing beneath and were sipping droplets of liquid from it. Being both mycologist and bee keeper, he wanted to know more. The bees were attracted to sugar-rich cytoplasm from the mycelium and were seeking it out. That’s a good reason to encourage mycelium in the garden and to pay attention to good cultivation rather than turn to fungicides.

2-dec-16-2Mycelium growing on rotting wood

Stamets has also created a mix of honey and a particular fungus that the bees search out for immunological benefit and has found that it improves bee’s disease resistance and longevity. This means that bee numbers stay at a healthy level and that young nurse bees are not prematurely recruited into becoming foragers, leaving the bee nursery under-staffed. It is thought that improving the overall health of the hive should reduce the incidence of Colony Collapse Disorder.

It’s all fascinating to read and think about and I find Stamets’ enthusiasm infectious. Whatever your opinion of him, here is someone who wants to do good, who is trying. I’m going to follow some of his advice and to this end, mulches of wood chips have been laid on the beds, where mycelium will form and spread. Birch logs, one of the woods said to attract bees, have been added to the log piles. This was done in early autumn so whilst there will undoubtedly be a wait for the mycelilum to develop, once the weather warms and it gets started, the bees should find it and start investigating. I’m very keen to see what they do. Another bee keeper has told me that she’s noticed bees investigating rotting wood and has heard reports of the same from others, so I’m hopeful that this experiment will prove positive. To find out if the wood chips and logs are attractive to the bees will mean I have sit in the garden watching the bees. This does not seem too onerous a task and I shall ready myself for it.

Looking at the relationship between bees and fungi, Stamets says that bees search out particular trees, mainly willow, birch and young firs, especially those where the bark has already been damaged by wild animals such as deer or squirrels.

squirrel-damageTrees damaged by squirrels are being left standing to encourage insects and fungi

Art Inspired by the Cotswolds

The Whispering Knights Project I’ve been involved with for just over two years now is to appear in an exhibition at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, which will run from January 15 – February 5, 2017. The exhibition, ‘Art Inspired by the Cotswolds‘ celebrates 50th anniversary of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Beauty (Cotswolds AONB).

Here is our new video:

We have framed prints of some of our favourite works to show and a video tour of parts of the woodland. Of course, the woodland is there all the time and visitors can wander around when they feel like it.

Entry is free and there is plenty of parking space available if you visit by car.

Bottles in the soil – garden finds

Buried glass bottles can be delicate things and can break easily when the soil is being worked, so I thought myself lucky to unearth this one. It’s a Victorian ink bottle and is very similar to one held by the Museum of London, which dates their piece 1866-1900.

ink-bottle-2

ink-bottle-4

Being octagonal in style, it may have once held ink for a rubber stamp and carried a label like the one below.

octoenglishinklabelMore here

The property I found it on was once the village post office and this bottle must have been discarded over 100 years ago. Other items occasionally surface from the garden here – this is where the old slate pencil popped up.

ink-bottle-3

Another little piece of history turned up last week in the soil of a very old garden in Witney, Oxfordshire. Old gardens in Witney are a good source of garden finds and this fragment pleased me. I’m pretty sure it’s the neck of a salt glazed gin bottle, possibly Dutch, and 18th or 19th century.

bottleneck-4

bottleneck-1

Finding part of a gin bottle in this particular garden brought a smile to my face as a small gin story could go with it. A couple of years ago, I was working in the front garden which faces onto the pavement. The owner, an extremely respectable older lady, was talking to me there when one of her neighbours, known to both of us, happened to pass by. They chatted for a moment or two and, since she’d recently had a fall, he enquired after her health. Then he leaned in a little more closely and, after a perfectly-timed pause, asked quietly, ‘Was it the gin?’.

bottleneck-2

Autumn: mellow fruitfulness – and clouds of biting midges

In the Cotswold woodland that we visit, the scene has changed and is suddenly autumnal. Now that the cover of the undergrowth is starting to collapse and die back, far more can be seen of what goes on beneath. With the dampness of autumn, fungi have popped up over night, making meals for various types of wildlife. Mammals eat fungi and clumps can be found which have been partially consumed, only the stems remaining. Why did they not eat all of it, one wonders.

chewed-mushrooms

Slugs are also partial to fungi and I found this one making a quiet meal on its own. You can find out more about slugs here.

slug-mushroom

It’s a very good year for puffballs, but they don’t appear to be attractive to wildlife and none I’ve come across have the marks of being sampled.

puff-ball

Elsewhere, badgers show their presence in the form of the pathways they’ve made in the grass. Their routes never seem to vary, even if a log is laid across them, and the paths are well trodden. Another sign of badgers is the shallow latrines they dig at particular points along their territory boundaries. Badgers are cleanly creatures, but these are a rather unpleasant thing to come across, generally being full of sloppy droppings which are coloured according to what has been eaten.

badger-latrine

The presence of an active badger sett can also be seen when the badgers air their bedding, pulling it out of the sett and spreading it around. The bedding I was lucky enough to come across was primarily made up of dried grass and animal hair, which would make quite a soft and comfortable bed. I’ve yet to see a badger gathering bedding for myself but have seen video showing them dragging balls of grass backwards towards the sett, much as a dog would do with bedding. I found it almost as frustrating to watch and recalled how our dog Toby would scuff up the rug in his bed, changing it from being neatly spread out to a lumpy heap.

badger-bedding

At home, the robin still visits us several times a day, alighting on logs in the open fronted wood shed and then making short hops from one perch to another before flying into the garage for its treat of mealworms. The two blackbirds which had also been visiting disappeared suddenly and we suspected they had not been predated, but had gone off to the hedgerows to feast on the abundance of berries available there. They returned today and have gone straight back to their usual routine of speed-eating as many mealworms as possible. The robin, in comparison, is positively genteel, taking only a few worms at one sitting and allowing a few moments between each one.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ it may have been to the poet John Keats, but I suspect he didn’t do much gardening. Autumn is certainly beautiful, but to me it also means the emergence of biting midges and once more resorting to insect repellent. This autumn has been especially midgy and working under shrubs has found me tormented by these wretched creatures and itching for days. How they get through my hair is a mystery. I searched out the repellent I’d mislaid after summer, Stupidly Simple Midge Repel. It contains pine tar and has a faint smoky odour, but it works and I’ve never been happier to smell like an old bonfire.

midge-repel

Finding fossils in unexpected places – gravel

I don’t care for the human world just now – there is madness in the air, uncaring behaviour towards all living things and little love being shown for those who need it most. I don’t approve. Sometimes I have to turn away and look at something else. That ‘something else’ jumped out at me from the apparent mundanity of the gravel in the courtyard at home and has turned those previously rough looking stones into something much more interesting and far from mundane.

gravelNot very exciting, is it?

shell-fragmentLook more closely and details emerge

It happened that as I walked from the car to the gate one day, my eye caught a pattern of grooves in one small round stone. Looking more closely I realised it was a fossilised bivalve, worn almost smooth but still showing its original shape and these last blurred features of its previous self.

shell-2

I have some other very similar fossilised bivalves picked out of a Jurassic cliff face in a quarry so compared them and thought they might be related. If both are roughly the same age, that likely makes them from the Callovian era of the middle Jurassic, some 163.5–166.1 million years ago.

shell-comparison-2

shell-comparison-1

Going back outside with a magnifying glass, I put down a kneeling mat and crawled around to see what else was there and was rewarded with a variety of fossils. Nothing large or pristine, but fossils nonetheless. In around half an hour I’d found sponges, sections of belemnite, a couple of sea urchins, fragments of corals and quite a lot of bones and shelly pieces.

fossil-group-1

boneMy retired-GP dad said this is ‘possibly the epiphysis of a long bone’

There was one piece I longed to be a worn tooth but someone with far more knowledge than me assured me it was also bone. That was a little disappointing, but there you go.

maybe-toothI wish this could have been part of a tooth

Since that first piece was found, I’ve been marvelling that the layer of dull grey stones outside contains so many remains of creatures which lived up to 166 million years ago. At their youngest, they’re probably from the Cretaceous, some 145–66 million years ago.

sponge

There you have it – I craved distraction and found it right on the doorstep and in pleasing quantity. I also found someone else who looks at gravel.

fossil-group-2

Growing feathers is hungry work – helping birds through their moult

A robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been visiting us for three years now. It started as a youngster, coming into the garage and seeming content to perch and watch the activity in there. Seed was put down for it and it returned every day, sometimes several times. After a while, we started supplying live mealworms, which proved extremely popular, and a routine became firmly established.

13-02-2015-robin-2The robin when it first started visiting

Robins don’t live long in the wild, with only about a quarter reaching their first birthday, but I believe this is the same robin. We did have an interloping robin for a season, but that bird behaved differently to this one and the first robin was recognisable when it returned in autumn. The routine established with the first robin three years ago has been repeated pretty much every day since then. This is how it goes: one of us will go to the garage and the door handle will screech as it’s turned. The robin hears this and comes to sit in the wood shed next to the garage. Whoever is there will turn to it and say ‘Hello robin’, which is the signal for it to fly in through the door and stand in a particular spot on a work bench. The mealworms are then produced and the robin will eat several, occasionally stopping to give a sharp glance at its feet.

looking-at-feetThe robin looks at its feet

Being replete, it will then do one of two things – take a mealworm and fly off with it over one of our left shoulders, often ruffling the hair, or fly to a bag hanging from some shelves and perch there. Here, it will polish its beak on the same spot of the bag’s rim and then rest for a while. There we have it; unless we go away, which is not often, this is the sequence we repeat every day. This year, a male and female blackbird have joined in the mealworm bounty, though they prefer to stay outside the garage.

robin-bagResting on its favourite bag

Watching the robin every day, we notice that it has moods. Sometimes it is full of confidence, chest puffed up, and at other times it seems flat-feathered and timid; we wonder if it’s had a near miss with a cat, or if something else has frightened it, but the routine remains the same.

0821-robinDuring the moult and looking pretty scruffy

During the second half of August, the robin started eating more mealworms than usual, up to 16 a visit compared to the current average of six. The increase in appetite was soon followed by it starting to look increasingly bedraggled, feathers loose and sticking out all over. What was happening? It was moulting, as all birds do, shedding old feathers and growing new ones. During this time, birds can’t fly as well as they usually do and tend to go quiet so they don’t alert predators to their dishevelled state. The blackbirds moulted shortly before the robin, with the male losing all his tail feathers. All three birds are now looking considerably smarter, with smooth new feathers and brighter colours. Will they stay with us throughout the winter? Will this be the robin’s last moult? Only time will tell, but the birds’ ‘cafe’ will remain open.

Edit: After reading more, I’ve discovered that if a robin gets through its first year or so, it can live quite a bit longer than 1.1 years. The two oldest ringed robins were 19 years, 4 months, in the Czech Republic and 17 years and 3 months, in Poland. ‘Our’ robin may be around for a while yet!

robin-aug-2I’ll just sit here, thanks

I found a crayfish in a really weird place

Over the years that I’ve spent in gardens, I’ve come across all sorts of curious things – chocolate eggs, lost toys, hundreds of clay pipe stems, old bottles, fossils and oyster shells – but on a day in 2010 I made the oddest find to date. I was happily pruning a rambling rose that was trained against a lovely old Cotswold stone wall, when a flash of blue appeared amongst the foliage. The first thing that came to mind was a faded Hydrangea flower head, but there weren’t any Hydrangeas. Looking closer, I was astonished to find, hanging in the branches about 2m from the ground, a long-dead crayfish.

I admit that I’m not especially familiar with crayfish, wildlife on dry land has always been more my area of interest. I’ve watched them scurrying about the bottom of a shallow stream in the Lake District and I’ve been served them once, though I would rather not repeat that experience. A more fiddly and unrewarding meal I have seldom eaten. Crayfish haven’t been part of my life, so to come across one dangling in a rambling rose was a considerable surprise.

crayfish-1

Back indoors, I set out upon the agreeable pursuit of looking things up and discovered that there is only one native crayfish in the UK, the freshwater white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), which is increasingly threatened by an invasive American type, the signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus. The signal crayfish eats everything in its path and damages river banks by digging deep burrows which cause the river banks to collapse. Crayfish need lively-flowing streams and rivers to live in and it happens that there is a lively-flowing river running through this town, the river Windrush. I then discovered that signal crayfish have been found in the Windrush and realised that many of the  holes I’d seen in the banks are likely to have been dug by them. Comparing the shape, colour and markings of the claw of the crayfish I found to the one shown here, I concluded that it is a signal crayfish.

crayfish-2

So how on earth did this crayfish get itself from the river, some 500m away at the closest, and into a rambling rose in a town garden? The only answer I could come up with is that it was caught in the river by a heron and then dropped as the bird flew over the garden. Did the heron simply lose its grip on the bony shell or was the crayfish putting up its last fight and struggling to break free from the heron’s beak, snapping its claws at the bird’s face? Or maybe another heron was trying to steal the first heron’s catch and the crayfish was dropped as they argued. I’ll never find out how it got into that rose, but it reminds me that the world is vast, that there are countless questions I’ll never even ask, let alone be able to answer. There’s no looking this one up, it will always be a puzzle, but a bit of mystery is a good thing.

crayfish-3

Unexpected visitors

Sunday was meant to be a gentle day – we’d bake some bread, potter outside and cook something delicious. That didn’t happen for, as Robert Burns said in his poem, ‘To a Mouse‘, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. In other words, you can plan all you want to, but don’t expect any of it to happen.

I was enjoying the ‘potter outside’ section of this plan, cutting back spent perennials, and was thus engrossed when I heard buzzing. It grew louder and I looked up to see bees overhead. How wonderful, a swarm of honey bees setting forth to build a new colony. I expected them to fly over in a column, as usual, and disappear beyond the rooftops, but they didn’t. Instead I found myself at the centre of a swirling mass of swarming bees. At first it was alarming, then I recalled all those times working in flower filled beds, with bees almost buzzing in my hair, and realised that they probably hadn’t even noticed me and were interested in their own business of finding a safe place for their queen. Still, probably better to close a couple of windows, just in case, and find the number of a local swarm collector on the British Beekeepers Association site.

bee-swarmThe swarm clustered in the Magnolia tree

I spoke to a swarm collector, Steph Green, from a nearby village, who said she’d be there within the hour. Outside the bees were still active but gradually settling high up in the big old Magnolia tree outside the kitchen window, the worker bees – Steph calls them ‘the girls’ – clustering protectively around the queen. Every so often, I’d go and check that they were still there and hadn’t moved on. Here they are in the clip below.

In due course, Steph arrived with her bee collecting gear – two bee keeper’s suits, boots, gloves, a sheet for any falling bees to land on so they would be seen and not squashed, and a special polystyrene box called a ‘nuc box’, or nucleus collecting box, which was set out under the tree.

IMG_20160703_171805Karl in the tree

The work of bringing the swarm down to the ground began. Our longest ladders weren’t quite long enough for Steph to reach the swarm and the upper branches were congested so would need trimming. Karl was the tallest and had the longest arms so he volunteered to go up. He cut out some wood, a job which needed doing anyway, got into the tree, removed the branch with the swarm and very carefully lowered it down. Steph took it from him, held it over the box, gave a sharp downward shake and most of the bees dropped straight in. The others continued to swirl around us, their buzzing surprisingly loud.

bee-branchGetting ready to shake the bees into the box

in-the-boxLooking for the queen

Steph had told me on the phone that the bees would have filled their stomachs prior to swarming and would be fairly docile. She said their stomachs would be so full they’d find it hard to get into position to sting and anyway they were intent on the queen, not stinging. It made sense. I had long sleeves, was wearing gloves and my trousers were tucked into boots, so I kept what seemed a sensible distance, tidied up the cut branches, took pictures and listened to Steph talking about what the bees were doing.

suits-bootsKarl and Steph

Some remained in the tree top, where they could still smell the queen, whilst others were standing in rows on the edge of the box with their rear ends pointing skyward and their wings flapping. They were giving off the Nasonov pheromone, which smells of geraniums and is used to signal stragglers to the colony’s whereabouts. Beware of eating bananas before dealing with bees, as the alarm pheromone reputably smells much like them.

hive-530pm

The bees fan their pheromone scent to encourage the stragglers to join them

Gradually, the bees were coaxed into the box, the lid put on and a hole left open for latecomers to get in. Steph was extremely gentle in her work, taking care that none of the bees were inadvertently harmed. Inside their box, the bees ‘fanned’ to alert the rest of the colony, sounding very much like an electric fan, while a small group of female workers stood by the round doorway, bottoms pointing up, giving off their geranium scent.

brush-lidSteph gently moves bees out of harm’s way

By 7pm, most had gone inside and only three workers remained at the doorway, so we went in and had dinner. As dusk fell, the bees went to bed and Steph took them to their new home amongst other bees, in a field.

hive-7pmBy 7pm, only three bees were still signalling

What a day. Karl said later how surreal it felt to find himself not doing the odd jobs he’d intended to, but in a tree and holding a branch with a swarm of bees clustering on it. Not the plan, but a very good day indeed.

IMG_20160509_075712Their new home