Category Archives: Wildlife

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.

The blackbirds and robins are nesting again

Feeding the birds means that we can easily tell for the first time how many broods they are having and when. The main thing we watch out for is whether the birds eat the offered mealworms or fly away with them and, for both robins and blackbirds, it looks like they are onto their second broods of the season.

robin-blackbird

After the garden robin took over the courtyard robin’s territory in May, he introduced a mate and they started courtship feeding around May 5. This continued until May 29 when it abruptly stopped and both birds started appearing separately, which we understood to mean that the female was no longer sitting on the nest and the first brood of robins had been raised. On June 5, courtship feeding resumed and, as far as we know, is on-going. By ‘as far as we know’ I mean that the robins have endeared themselves to our next door neighbours who, seeing us feeding them, naturally wanted to try it for themselves and so the robins are visiting them as well. With a steady supply of good food, it will be interesting to see how many broods are raised this year.

blackbird-doorstep

There are also two pairs of blackbirds coming to us for mealworms, one pair from the courtyard and the other from the garden. They will occasionally all turn up in the same spot and a chase then ensues, but they mostly stay in their own territories. The courtyard blackbirds are still nesting in the ivy that grows on the wall between us and next door and, the young having fledged, the female gathered more material to refurbish the nest and laid eggs again. Those eggs have hatched and both birds are busily feeding young ones.

blackbird-window-3

The garden blackbird’s territory has come to include our kitchen windowsill, as he has spotted us through the glass and will sometimes perch outside and stare in at us. Sometimes he does this while we’re eating our dinner, which can feel a little awkward, and reminiscent of scenes from Dickens’ Oliver Twist where the boy of the same name asks for ‘some more’ gruel. At least with us, the blackbird will get it.

blackbird-window

Checking on an owl’s nest – you’ll need armour

In the far corner of Ruth’s orchard, there is an old shed where her late husband stored some of his work materials. It’s become a little run down and there is a large pane of glass missing from the door, but there is something appealing about this old shed in the orchard with long grass and cow parsley growing around it. Ruth’s son had asked about clearing it out, but Ruth had heard movement in there and suspected that a bird was nesting inside,  possibly an owl. She asked me to check and find out.

orchardThe orchard

Intruding on an owl, or any bird, during breeding season isn’t a good idea and I had some misgivings, but said I would check, very quickly, as it would be better than Ruth’s son entering without knowing if there really was an owl. Not without precautions, though, for as soon as she made the request, an image came to mind of a nesting box I’d photographed some years ago. It was a box for owls and on the front of it, in big red capital letters, was the stark warning ‘Goggles must be worn’, probably alluding to the experience of bird photographer Eric Hosking, who lost an eye after being attacked by an angry owl.

gogglesAnd make sure you do, too!

With the image of ‘Goggles must be worn’ flashing in my mind, I wondered how to  approach the shed safely without becoming the target of an owl’s talons. I had on a thick waxed waistcoat and there was a pair of heavier gloves in my bag, but what of my head and face? Inspiration struck and I asked Ruth if she had a compost sieve. She did, so we brushed it off and it became my owl armour, held at an angle in front of my face and over the top of my head.

sieveOwl armour

Thus protected, I crept towards the door with the missing window pane. At around 1.5m from the door, there was a whoosh and a large bird erupted through the window, flew over my head and sped towards some nearby conifers. It was a Tawny owl (Strix aluco) and its appearance during daylight hours set off alarm calls from every bird in the vicinity. I was expecting something like this, but the experience left me trembling and I returned a little unsteadily to where Ruth was waiting at the edge of the orchard. ‘You have a tawny owl’, I said. ‘Oh good’ she said, ‘Let’s stay away from it and keep it secret’. The location will remain unspoken and no one will be allowed near that shed until August, when the young ones will certainly have fledged and, left in peace, the owl should sort out the garden’s rabbit problem.

Surprising a frog in the dark

When common frogs (Rana temporaria) laid spawn in the tiny garden pond there was also a smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) in the pond and I wondered if the newt would stay and eat the tadpoles. That was at the beginning of April and the tadpoles hatched out a couple of weeks later. It is now the third week in May, the pond is still full of tadpoles and I haven’t seen a newt in the pond for a month. It makes me wonder why the newt hasn’t stayed around to take advantage of the food source, but maybe there are more rewarding ponds nearby.

tadpoles-0518Still there, then

If some of the tadpoles survive to become froglets, they will leave the pond en masse in late summer. The adults, having mated and laid spawn, left the pond some time ago and are in their terrestrial phase. They spend their time hiding in damp and shady locations, coming out at night to find food. I am already finding quite a few frogs and toads in gardens and they hide so well that it is only the movement of foliage, or the predatory glare of someone’s cat, that gives them away. We surprised a frog the other night – seeing friends out late one evening, the automatic light came on and surprised a frog making its way up the garden path. I felt a bit sorry for it suddenly finding itself in the glare of the spotlight so a quick picture was taken and the light hurriedly switched off again, leaving the frog to regain its equilibrium and continue with its business.

nighttime-frogStartled frog, probably not expecting to be the spotlight at midnight

Having downloaded the pictures from the camera, my curiosity got the better of me and I looked more closely for the details that would show whether it was male or female frog. Male frogs are generally a bit smaller than the females and have a lighter coloured throat during the mating season, but one of the main features is that males have thick, rough cushion-like pads on their ‘thumbs’, called ‘nuptial pads‘, which help them to hold onto the female during mating. This frog’s thumbs looked distinctly slender, so I think she is very likely female. Not that it matters for the main thing is that there is at least one frog at work in the courtyard garden.

nighttime-frog-2

The robins have changed territory – and the blackbirds have discovered mealworms

It’s all go for nesting birds just now and I’ve noticed that the tension of mating season has resulted in new robin territory borders. Where we previously had two male robins coming to us for mealworms and not fighting about it, we now have only one. As April drew to a close, the garden robin and courtyard robin became increasingly intolerant of one another and began posturing and then fighting.

robin-new-territoryThe garden robin surveys his new territory

Now the courtyard robin has left the territory, which has been taken over by the garden robin. It’s a shame because the courtyard robin was the more interesting bird – to start with, he was the bolder of the two and the one who kept looking at his feet. I hope the courtyard robin found somewhere else suitable to move to.

Almost as soon as the garden robin established his new territory, I noticed that he had a mate and was engaging in courtship feeding. He’d come for mealworms, eat a few and then fly away with one before repeating the routine.

robin-maleOn the doorstep, gathering mealworms

The female asks for food by emitting high-pitched cheeps, lowering her body and excitedly flapping her wings until the male feeds her. Having bonded, this behaviour will continue for several weeks as the male provides much of the female’s food while she is incubating eggs in the nest.

robin-femaleThe female being alluring

Once the eggs have hatched, both birds will be involved in finding food for the young robins still in the nest. I’m wondering how long it will be before we have a flock of robins approach us whenever we go outside, as the parent birds are sure to introduce their offspring. Still, it won’t last long for they will disperse at the end of summer and we’ll be back to just one robin following us about.

courtship-feedingOn the doorstep

The mealworms are still attracting the pair of blackbirds and both male and female are coming for worms. The nest is in the thick ivy that grows over the wall and I’m glad that the neighbours haven’t cut it back as this is the second year that blackbirds have nested in the same spot. Their eggs started hatching around May 7, shown by her gathering as many mealworms as she could cram into her beak and taking them into the ivy.

blackbird-eggBlackbird egg shell

 It is said that nest-failure is very high amongst blackbirds but hopefully this nesting attempt will be successful and we’ll see the young birds in a couple of weeks. I think we need to order more mealworms.

There is a growing community of species living in the woods

I spent part of a day in the woods by the Rollright Stones simply walking and looking – indulging in the pleasure of quietly observing, identifying, analysing and categorising what I saw. It is all too easy to pass by without actually seeing what is around us and many signs are missed, but look closer, pay attention, and you can see that this young woodland has a growing community of species that call it home.

 

in the woods

The following are just a few of the mammal and bird species we’ve seen so far. There have been many birds, some heard rather than seen, glimpses of deer, mice and voles, a weasel, signs that  badgers are about . In some cases, you don’t see the creature itself but  the tell tale signs of activity and then you can try to figure out what has happened.

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