Tag Archives: blackbird

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!

First bee swarm of 2018 arrives

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

A swarm from May 2017

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

The new swarm box with scouts around the door

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

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

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

The bees moving into the swarm box

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

The swarm clusters in the lid of the box

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.

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