Category Archives: Wildlife

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

I’m trying not to hate slugs

The recent rainy weather has brought out a lot of slugs and I’ve been spotting them everywhere. In the early morning, they’ll be crawling across wet lawns – while paving slabs, the outside of sheds and even windows show the slimy route of their night-time travels. The often damp environment of late summer and early autumn is a good time to get out and look at them.

Slug love (photograph: John Gunter)

Slugs are not generally seen as attractive creatures; they are slimy and disliked for their role in destroying plants by eating through their stems and leaves, rasping through plant matter with their file-like radula.

And they have more than one voyeur  (photograph: John Gunter)

There are many disappointments in the growing year connected with gastropods, but I try to find something positive in them lest I feel tempted to destroy them all. Slugs and snails aren’t intent on causing trouble to humans, they’re just trying to make a living. At the same time as causing damage to our prized garden plants, they also serve us in disposing of waste, from fallen leaves to carrion. In recent years I’ve come to put them in the category I refer to as ‘cleaners’ or detritivores. Wasps and woodlice also come under this title. Seeing them in this light allows me to tolerate what might otherwise cause rage at the destruction gastropods can visit upon a garden.

On a quest (photograph: John Gunter)

The thing is, if we swallow any disgust we might feel and look at them close up, slugs can be fascinating. In the last few weeks, Karl’s cousin, John, has been sending me pictures of the slugs he sees (mostly of the genus Arion) on those evenings when he steps outside to take the air. These pictures show slugs in almost cartoon-like poses and my inner child sees them not intent on destruction, but on some journey or quest.

(photograph: John Gunter)

Another picture I took several years ago shows the same type of slug alongside a woodlouse. The woodlouse has one leg raised towards the slug and you can almost imagine them in conversation. In reality, the woodlouse might simply have been trying to protect itself from being flattened or eaten, but I find it useful to view images that don’t show these creatures merely as things to be reviled.

Companions

I’m not alone in my attempts to adjust my thinking – a blog from the site Microscopy, ‘Snail’s Teeth, Spicules, and Other Bizarre Delights: Or Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder‘, looks at the finer details of gastropods in which the writer examines ‘their rows and rows of beautifully coloured teeth‘. Researchers at Bristol University, meanwhile, have been looking at mollusc evolution and have found an early ancestor of the slug in a 480-million-year-old slug-like fossil. This tells us quite plainly that having been here for 480 million years, slugs aren’t going anywhere so we’d better just get used to them.

Slug cousin

New bees in town

‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly‘ – mid 17th century bee-keepers’ saying, meaning that the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom.

The first swarm to arrive

May is the start of bee swarming season and we saw a good deal of it without even needing to leave home. Late on Monday afternoon, I heard a familiar sound. There was a loud buzzing coming from the garden and I looked out to see bees swirling around the top of the Magnolia tree. Sure enough, just like last year, they settled on a branch near the top of the tree. We could have left them there and they’d have moved on after a short time, but we know of a bee keeper who is on the look out for extra colonies, so we caught it and put it in a temporary hive. Swarming bees want nothing but a new home and to protect their queen and they settled into the box right away. They are healthy looking bees, dark in colour and lots of them.

We thought that might be it, but the weather was warm and calm, ideal for swarming. So it turned out, for late afternoon on Wednesday another swarm arrived and that too settled in the Magnolia. This one was too high for us to reach without great difficulty and since catching a swarm often means cutting branches we decided to leave them alone. They moved on the next morning.

Wednesday’s swarm was heart-shaped

The warm weather continued, encouraging bees to move house and on Friday afternoon yet another swarm arrived, once again settling in the Magnolia. Again it was too high to reach and, as on Wednesday, it moved on after a short time.

Friday’s swarm

By now the week was starting to feel slightly surreal. A swarm every other day. What next? We had a feeling that another swarm was going to turn up and if things happened as they had been doing, it would probably arrive on Sunday. The number of bees passing through means that they would have left pheromones on the tree, which would attract other bees. We didn’t want to cut any more out of the tree and wanted to come up with a plan.

We’d already found out about swarm boxes – wooden boxes put into trees that the bees find and, hopefully, move into on their own. Once settled they can then be transferred to a permanent hive, easing the stress of having to shake them into a hive off a branch. Attracting them in this way also means that the colony is quickly housed and less likely to cause upset if it moves on and doesn’t find somewhere to settle. We quickly made a swarm box out of various pieces of old wood (plans here). It was fixed into the tree, held in place on a hanging basket hook and kept from blowing about with rope.

The swarm box in position 

Within hours, scout bees were investigating and, par for the course, within a couple of days they had moved in and taken up hive activities.

Here they are fanning pheromones at the doorway to let the rest of the colony know where they are.

There you have it. If you’re after a colony of bees to give a home to and take care of, this could be worth a try.

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.

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

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

There’s a lot of tree bark stripping this year

The winter of 2015-2016 was mild compared to some of those from earlier in the decade and you’d think that the wild mammals would have found enough to eat in the fields and hedgerows, but this spring I’ve seen some of the worst damage to tree bark I’ve ever come across. In rural gardens I expect to find the juicy foliage of bulbs and shrubs nibbled at the end of winter, but this year has seen an increase in tree bark stripping that I haven’t previously observed.

deer-bulb-foliageChewed bluebell foliage

At Ruth’s out-of-town garden, about half of her orchard trees have been ring-barked, the bark gnawed off all around the trunks, some up to 40cm. What a mournful sight it was to see her fine apple trees so ravaged, protected too late with chicken wire that will at least prevent further damage. I thought of others I know who have fruit trees and felt a strong urge to check on them. The tale continued – oaks planted to celebrate the Millennium, which had been thought mature enough to no longer need protection, had been stripped. Some creature had made a good meal from a gnarled and leaning old apple tree, with the branches growing along the ground now free of bark. In nearby woodland, the evidence was again clear and tree trunks had been nibbled and gnawed as far as could be reached.

apple-tree-damage-3Doesn’t look so good, does it

Which species ate the bark? Looking into the issue, my guess is that it was a variety of them. A surprising number of UK mammals eat bark and I suspect that the culprits in the gardens were mainly voles and rabbits. Both gardens regularly see the garden plants browsed and bulbs dug out and eaten and both have resident rabbits and voles, as evidenced by droppings and the large number of tunnel entrances – I imagine one particularly holey and uneven area of grass must have a vole citadel beneath it.

deerBambi, was it you?

It is alarming to come across such damage to beloved trees but once it has happened, there isn’t much to be done and one can only think of ways to prevent further depredations. The first thing I did was protect the tree trunks with an ever-useful material, the galvanised wire mesh we know as chicken wire. Over the years, I have found countless uses for the combination of chicken wire and bamboo canes. Here they came in handy once again as the wire mesh was fashioned into cages around the trees and fixed in position with the canes. Not all the trees will survive, of course, and those completely ring-barked will no doubt die, but others may yet live.

Why has this happened now, I ask myself? I can only think that the mild winter has resulted in an increased survival rate of the wildlife concerned, all of them needing to eat and finding the clusters of trees and succulent young foliage of nearby plants to be most advantageous to them. Speaking to another gardener, I hear that a local herd of deer has increased from around six to 20 in the last couple of years and they are regularly found dining in the village gardens.

rabbit-damageThis Campanula clearly tastes good

I am somewhat torn in my feelings about the matter. I feel very sorry for the garden owners having their gardens damaged and will do all that I can to protect them but another part of me, the part with a fervent interest in ecology and who is a keen fan of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, can’t help but be glad that the rabbits, voles and deer are there in the first place and obviously finding something to eat. In my secret heart, I cheer these wild creatures who are finding a way to live within the ever-increasing sprawl of humanity, for we are encroaching on their territory quite as much as they encroach on what we believe to be ours.

Recognising types of mammal damage

Charting the course of autumn wildlife

Now that this long autumn has begun its move towards winter, the activity of wildlife has changed from one of raising young to securing a territory and surviving the coming months of cold. Robins need little reason to fight amongst themselves and their battles become more frequent as the year ages and they strive to acquire and hold the territory that will feed them until spring. Finches and tits group together to form chattering flocks, hedgehogs, dormice and bats prepare for hibernation and amphibians burrow into soil, compost heaps or under log piles.

1021-1

In this old house, autumn is heralded by the arrival of wood lice, which suddenly increase in numbers and crawl about the edges of rooms or find their way into the bath. As temperatures drop, they are joined by, and appear to be eaten by, spiders and their numbers drop again. We find the dessicated bodies in clusters under cobwebs, tucked away behind the fridge or under the washing machine. Many people don’t like insects in their homes, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, unless they bite or a light has been left on in an open-windowed room and it fills with dancing craneflies (Tipulidae).

In the great outdoors, it is interesting to stand amongst autumn trees and see the changes. In the woods, the deer have moved back into the dense central growth, where they make beds by scraping away the grass and leaves to reveal the bare earth they seem to prefer resting on. They are donning their winter coats, turning from a rich brown to a dull fawn, which blends perfectly with the muted colours of approaching winter.

deer-scrapeA deer has scraped away the grass and moss to make a bed of soil

All around us, insects are seeking shelter, tucking themselves against seed pods or the curls of fallen leaves.

nov-2015Ladybird seeking shelter

Slugs are fattening up on the last of the fungi, that not eaten by mammals, and will themselves become meals for hedgehogs, thrushes or toads.

slug-mushroom

In the Cotswold woodland I frequent, a small team is working to collect the brash from tree thinnings and build it into loosely woven mounds. Work started late last year and finished in spring and now that it is due to begin again, I’ve visited the woodland to observe wildlife activity around these mounds and it is gratifying to see.

shelterA small mammal has made a shelter in this thick mass of pine needles

Spiders are weaving their webs in the woven brash and many small birds move in and out of the twined stems. As I walk along the pathways or through the trees, birds flit from one brash mound to another. Sheltering so many insects, the mounds have become larders for them, as well as both habitat and hunting ground for small mammals and amphibians.

1021-3The birds spend a great deal of time investigating the woven brash

When it sometimes seems that all species except humans are sensibly tucking themselves away from the cold, I hear the soft sub-song of robins and blackbirds under shrubs, then suddenly the voices of dozens of birds. I look up to see a large flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) has landed on a lime tree, and are calling ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. I can make life easier for these wakeful birds, so the seed feeders will be filled over and again and the songsters will continue to enliven the relative quiet of winter.

 

Flying ant day 2015

If you saw mention in the news about swarms of flying ants during the the last week, then you may also have seen the ants themselves. Over the weekend between July 31 and August 2 there were a flurry of stories across all the media reporting sightings of the emergence of thousands of flying ants with Sunday August 2 being the peak ‘Flying Ant Day’. Here at home, in west Oxfordshire, Flying Ant Day was Friday July 31 at approximately 5.15pm. I was lucky enough to see two colonies emerge, with the larger young queens and smaller males to take to the air for their nuptial flight, guided from the nest by small wingless workers. Last year’s Flying Ant Day occurred on July 27 at 7pm and on that occasion it was yellow meadow ants (Lasius flavus) that were seen. They emerged from an old tree stump in the garden.

ants-2

The ants I saw this year were black ants, probably Lasius niger and the ant most likely to be seen in the UK. One emergence came from under the slabs in the courtyard. We had been aware of their presence because of sandy deposits in the gaps between the slabs and because of increased worker ant activity in the days leading up to the nuptial flight. The other emergence was in the garden, where it seems that they were under the walls of the building at the end of the garden. Seeing that white wall suddenly covered in winged ants was quite startling and took me back to the age of about seven, when I’d seen black ants crawling up a white wall at my childhood home. There were hundreds of them slowly making their way up to about 3m before taking off. Some fell off and had to start again, others took off and landed on my clothes before making another attempt at flight. You can see why people having picnics or barbecues might be annoyed by such a phenomenon but I was involved in neither and it was fascinating to watch.

ants

The weather conditions for both this year and last year’s emergence was the same – dry, warm, humid and with a light breeze. This allows the ants to take flight and mate without being blown away or rained on. So many ants flying at once means that they are so many that not all can be predated by birds and there will be enough queens to land, shed their wings and start a new colony. Only the queens survive the nuptial flight, the males die shortly after mating.

If you saw an ant colony emerge and would like to submit your records, you can do so on the website of the Royal Society of Biology, where you can also find out more about the UK’s ant species.