Category Archives: wild birds

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!

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.

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.

Feathers

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!

 

Breeding season brings out bird’s quirks

The robin, which has been visiting us for almost four years now, has finally introduced a mate. It may that he’s had a mate in previous years but if so we haven’t seen her and he’s never taken any worms to give her, as male birds often do during the mating season. We had started calling him a ‘Philosophy robin’, wondering if he intended to spend his life thinking robin thoughts rather than mating. This has changed.

The robin’s mate waits for her gift of worms

For the last couple of weeks, he’s been coming into the garage to eat a few worms himself before gathering two or three and flying away with them. Luckily for us, his mate either waits in the Pyracantha hedge or in the lime tree on the other side of the wall so we’ve been able to see what goes on. Being in the habit of coming to us for mealworms, the male is now eagerly offering his mate worms, seemingly at every opportunity, coming to the bowl several times in quick succession and flying off to stuff his gift of worms into her beak. She’s a fortunate robin and we’re curious to see when the young ones appear, especially as the RSPB say that the male feeding the female at this time can impact on clutch size.

Selecting the best worms

Looking at the photographs, you can see the beautiful detail in the robin’s feathers and also that there is a slight nick in his beak. How did it happen, I wonder? Wear and tear, perhaps? A fight?

See the tiny nick at the end of his beak?

Elsewhere, the breeding season is in full flow. In the woods I picked up the broken shell of a song thrush (Turdus philomelos). Bright blue and speckled with small black patches, this will have been removed from the nest as soon as the young one hatched. Where they’re nesting is a mystery, but it would be nice to think that one of the brash mounds in the woods has made itself attractive as a protected ‘dead hedge’ in which to bring up a family. We’ve found many old nests during our work on rebuilding the brash piles.

Song thrush egg shell

In the nearby garden I tend, the fruit cage has yet to have its wire netting roof put on for summer and its accessibility has been taken advantage of by a female pheasant. In a slightly scruffy gap between the raspberry canes, I spy a scratched out depression in the middle of which is a pale olive-brown egg. No doubt more will appear and I’ll have to work around her and later make sure the door is left open so the chicks can get out when they’re ready to fledge.

The pheasant’s egg

Back at home, plants are springing into lush new growth. In the herb bed, the fresh young leaves have been noticed by a male starling (Sturnus vulgaris). He’s been down a few times now and has been nipping off the new growth and carrying it away to line the nest his mate has made. Starlings have a habit of doing this. Thyme, oregano and lavender are popular, while rosemary is nipped off and wastefully left behind. That was a new plant too. Birds have no respect. I’m reminded of similar bird behaviour from about ten years ago, when starlings nipped off every bit of new growth from a lavender and flew off with it. That same spring, sparrows transformed a gracefully flowing clump of Stipa tenuissima into something that more resembled a small green hedgehog. Taking turns, they grabbed hanks of the grass in their beaks and pulled, tugged and jumped until it came free, only stopping when it was entirely pruned. When they’d done that, they made a move on the primroses and pulled off every flower, leaving them on the ground to wither. That’s birds for you.

The birds learn a word

This is the fourth year that the resident robin has been visiting us and every day, we still use the same routine as we always have done, saying ‘Hello robin, do you want some worms?’. There follows the usual sequence of events as the robin flits quickly from one perch to another, coming to rest on the work bench in the garage where the mealworm pot is kept and waiting for its worm treat.

For the male blackbird, it’s the second year. He’s pretty much a daily visitor, sometimes coming as many as three times a day, though there are days when we don’t see him at all. He likes his mealworms too, but he doesn’t come into the garage, preferring to stand on the threshold and eat there. We use the same words with him as well. The female isn’t as frequent a visitor but, when she does, he defers to her and she eats first. It happens rarely, but the look he gets from her if he dares to take the last worm is priceless. He’ll step forward and snatch it and she’ll glare at him like he’s just delivered the most offensive insult you could imagine.

As we feed the birds, we talk to them and they’ve become used to the sound of our voices. Looking at how these birds react to what we say, I think it’s possible that both the robin and the male blackbird have learned the word ‘worm’. The robin started reacting first, about a year ago. Karl told me that it had tweeted at him when he asked if it wanted worms, though we nearly always get a quick bob on the mention of the word. I got a surprising reaction when I went out to the woodshed recently. I was reaching in for some wood when the robin landed on a piece of wood a few inches from my head and sat watching me. I made the usual greeting and for each of the three times I said ‘worms’ it fluttered its wings for a couple of seconds and then followed me straight to the worm pot.

The blackbird isn’t as bold and generally waits to be noticed from a short distance away, often sitting the roof of the other shed. When I turn and invite him to come and have some worms, he looks up alertly and then runs across the shed roof before swooping down to the ground at my feet. Today I went out and called to him where he was sitting on the garage roof and he too fluttered his wings at each mention of ‘worms’.

We wonder how far away our voices can be heard and if the robin, in particular, recognises that it’s us and not other humans. There have been times, walking up the driveway shared with the neighbours, when we’ve been chatting away and look up to see the robin staring at us from the big gates that lead into our place. The way robin sits there looking at us, looks almost like it’s showing off and we find only when in company with others do we remember how tiny robins are. They somehow seem bigger when there are just the two of you.

It’s written that wild parrots in Australia are picking up phrases learned from escapee parrots, whilst starlings in the UK are known for being gifted mimics, so it doesn’t surprise me that the birds now recognise the word ‘worms’. Teaching the birds the melody to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ by whistling it daily, as Karl would like to do, might be too much but it is heartening to see that the birds appear to recognise something said to them. This is a current favourite performance of the ‘Ode to Joy‘. I love the way the faces of the audience show their delight at the unexpected music and the chorus is sung so powerfully it makes me want to weep. Unexpected music, whether from birds or humans deserves an ode to joy.

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

Time to clean out the nesting boxes. Or should we?

The British Trust for Ornithology states that Bird Protection Law permits the cleaning out of nesting boxes between 1 August and 31 January and as there are seven nesting boxes in Ruth’s large garden and she doesn’t like going up ladders, at the end of September she asked me to help her clean them out. Armed with gloves, a nest collecting bucket, a stiff brush and a ladder we set off, eager to see how many had been used and what the nests looked like.

birdbox-4A very private residence

Some were easier to get at than others; one was high up and almost entirely hidden by ivy, with only the entrance hole to be seen, whilst another was attached to a mature yew tree surrounded by a dense thicket of Symphoricarpos.

All the boxes were made by Ruth’s husband, a skilled carpenter, and were easily accessible at the base, which swivelled out to allow cleaning. The entrance holes were surrounded by a metal plate to prevent woodpeckers enlarging the hole and reaching in to take young birds.

nesting-box-3Made with care and attention by Ruth’s husband, Fred

As we made our way around the garden, opening boxes, removing the contents, giving the inside a quick scrub, the old nests piled up in the bucket. In the end, we found that five of the boxes had been used and were fascinated to see their variety.

five-nestsA wide variety of nests

All had a base of moss topped by a mixture of wool and other material, but one nest, with shell fragments showing it was used by a Great tit (Parus major), had a particularly deep and luxuriant foundation of moss, topped by a thick layer of wool. It looked so cosy – imagine being born surrounded by that softness.

luxury-nestThis mix of moss and wool was our favourite

In contrast another nest, whilst clearly used, had a fairly thin foundation of moss and very little wool. Yet another had been finished with downy feathers and a single unhatched egg showed it had been used by a blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus).

bluetit-eggUnhatched blue tit egg

All this cleaning activity begs the question, why clean out nesting boxes? A piece in The Telegraph suggests that it doesn’t really matter and that birds don’t really mind. It’s a thought provoking article, but unfortunately the studies mentioned are not named or linked to, so it isn’t possible to read them. Over on the RSPB website, the cleaning of nesting boxes is recommended: ‘The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. We recommend that old nests be removed in the autumn, from August onwards once the birds have stopped using the box’. Take your pick, but if Ruth wants to clean out the nesting boxes that’s fine with me. We didn’t destroy the nests, incidentally, we tucked them under hedges around the garden so that other creatures can make use of the materials. That or they will gently compost into the earth.

 

Grape expectations

2012 was a fruit year for us; we planted two new apple trees and a grape vine in our medium sized garden, adding to another apple tree, currants and gooseberries planted the year before. Each year we’ve watched them put out a bit more fruit, a few more apples on this tree or a better crop on the blackcurrant bushes, but it was the grapevine that had me most excited. We’d already used leaves from the summer pruning to make variations on Cypriot Koupepia, tasty little rolls of vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat, tomato and fresh herbs, but the fruit was slower to appear.

vine_leaves_2Koupepia in the making

I know that grapevines do well in this area as I’ve seen them growing and producing many bunches of fine tasting grapes. How good it would be to have a vine in our garden too – it’s one of those things that, once you realise the possibility, you just have to do it. The vine was planted over Easter 2012 against a south-facing wall where it would be bright, warm and sheltered. That first year it got settled in and didn’t grow a lot, not that we expected it to. Thereafter, it grew a little more and we carefully pruned it and tied it into the wires we’d put up, but the grapes were small and few so we left them for the birds.

oxford-grapesGrapes in a garden close to where we live

It didn’t start producing any fruit to get excited about until this year, when some 20 bunches started to form, tiny and green, gradually swelling and turning a beautiful dark purple. We waited impatiently for them to ripen, looking forward to the first fragrant, sun-warmed juiciness bursting in the mouth.

The view of the grape vine out of the kitchen window is partly obscured by the branches of the Magnolia tree, but it didn’t prevent me from seeing a blackbird flying into it, the foliage moving briefly and then all going suspiciously calm. That blackbird looked to me like it flew into the vine with purpose. Its movements mirrored exactly the way they fly into next door’s cherry tree when the fruits ripen and the tree fills with birds for a week or two. They clamber along its branches to pull off the cherries and scattering stones on the ground, which are then put into storage by mice. Time to check those grapes.

grapesNot a lot, but it’s a start and there should be more next year

I discovered that the blackbird had clearly been paying more attention than I had – the fruit was ripe and many of the easily reachable grapes had already been pecked at or eaten. Even so, there were many bunches of grapes that the birds couldn’t reach and they were ripe, as juicy and delicious as hoped for, so I cut them from the vine, leaving some for the birds to finish off. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the birds would watch the fruit more closely than me; indeed, I know from past experience that they do as I remember seeing a blackbird eating a huge and perfect strawberry I’d had my eye on for days, moments before I was about to pick it for myself. Next year it would probably be a good idea to net the vine before the fruit ripens, but we shall still leave some for the birds.