Neither are apparently native to UK, both coming originally from the Mediterranean area, but #412 Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and #415 Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) are widely naturalised in gardens and other habitats for hundreds of years, and both are a welcome sign of imminent spring.
As a nature lover and wildlife gardener I started wondering about the biodiversity in my Gloucestershire backyard and just how many species from plants to insects to birds to mammals live in or visit it. Much of the wildlife in my small, village garden has been present right under my nose for years without my really appreciating it. On the way I am learning a lot about different species and how to make a wildlife-friendly environment for them; also getting engaged more in conservation activities around the region. My garden species tally started from zero on June 1st 2018, the target is 1000 species - let's see where it goes.
I left these large logs from a dead elder tree in the corner of the garden and they attract a lot of wildlife; plenty of insects and even a hibernating toad.
Wood Ear Fungus (aka Jelly Ear Fungus) loves to grow on Elder deadwood, and there’s a good growth of it here. It sends out new fruit-bodies in the winter, which then darken and dry out during the year. The young growths are edible, a bit like black fungus you sometimes find in Chinese food; not much flavour apparently but an interesting texture if cut into strips in soup or salad. Will have to give it a try sometime.
Another fungus, this time on the dead stump of the same Elder tree, is Elder Whitewash (Hyphodontia sambuci), which appears as a white coating on the dead bark.
Snowy weather today had an instant effect, bringing an influx of birds into the village and making the daffodils look a bit sad. The best best bird was a female Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla, #411), this is a winter visitor from Northern Europe which can often be found among winter flocks of chaffinches in the UK. This was the first I’ve ever seen in my garden though, or even around the village. Fieldfare and Song Thrush were back after being a bit scarce lately, Common Buzzard passed low overhead, the Great-spotted Woodpecker was showing well.and a noisy group of 58 starlings was out of the ordinary.
Another interesting bird in the garden today was the Blackcap.. A male (photographed) has been around all winter, visiting the fat balls most days, but today was the first time this winter I saw a brown-capped female. Until recently this bird was a summer visitor, but warmer winters and increasing bird feeding has enabled them to over-winter in UK in increasing numbers. Interestingly, ringing studies show that our breeding blackcaps head to the Mediterranean for the winter, but birds from Central Europe now come to spend winter with us rather than heading South.
This weekend is the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, which i did with my youngest son this morning. Last year was cold and wintery with plenty of birds visiting the feeders, but today grey and blustery weather meant we saw very few birds during our hour long vigil, only 13 species and many of them were birds flying around the village rather than actually visiting the garden. The House Sparrows, Blackbird, Robins and Blue Tits were in the garden, but the main entertainment was a passing Red Kite and two of our regular Grey Squirrels chasing each other all around. Just after the Birdwatch period a large group of gulls passed from the nearby fields, mostly Common and Black-headed Gulls, but also Lesser Black-backed and new for the list #410 Herring Gull.
I was in the area, so dropped into Kemerton Lake NR, a reserve near Tewkesbury. Turned out that there were quite a few other visitors there to see a good-sized murmuration of starlings that come into roost in the reed beds. Apparently there’s up to 25,000 birds in the roost. They put up a great show wheeling around in a fast-moving flock, trying to keep away from a couple of hungry sparrowhawks, before dropping into the reeds en-masse for the night. As well as the starling spectacle there were also lots of ducks, including this beautiful male smew - a rare winter visitor to these parts from the Russian taiga. With all this, plus kingfisher and a calling water rail, that’s pretty impressive birding for somewhere right on my doorstep.
It's the anniversary of my starting the BTO Garden Birdwatch, logging all the birds in the garden over the course of a year. As well as birds I’ve recorded butterflies, mammals & amphibians. These graphics are off the BTO site, showing the frequency of the most common birds that actually use the garden (pure fly-overs are not counted).
Surprisingly out of the 47 bird species I recorded during the year, only four were seen absolutely every week: Woodpigeon, Blue Tit, Goldfinch & House Sparrow. The rest of the top 10 were Robin which only missed one week (reporting rate = 98%), Blackbird with reporting rate of 96%, Collared Dove, Jackdaw and Great Tit all on 92%, then quite a big drop to Wren at 75%. Most of these species disappeared during late Summer / early Autumn, when the species count was at it’s lowest.
At the other end of the scale six birds only showed once: Fieldfare during winter snows, Whitethroat, Siskin & Hawfinch during Spring migration and Grey Wagtail & Lesser Whitethroat also migrants during the late summer.
We get a decent selection of wintering thrushes in the village. Several (up to ten) Redwings are roosting in next door’s holly tree and are usually around eating berries or sitting high in the birch trees. So far, as there are plenty of berries, they stay up in the trees, but later on they will likely be down in the leaf little looking for insects. A few blackbirds are around too, also in the holly tree, or on the lawn. While there seem more redwings than last year, blackbirds didn’t yet get close to the max count of 11 last year. Fieldfares are plentiful in the orchards and wet fields around the region; we see them overhead but not often in the garden. Not unless there’s a snowfall. A Mistle thrush was around the garden earlier in the autumn, but there’s not much mistletoe so it moved on, but probably not far. The orchards round here are full of mistletoe, which these birds guard jealously against competitors. Rounding it off, I saw my first garden song thrush since the blog started in June the other day - as usual it keeps a low profile around the corners of the garden.
Normally the corvids don’t comer into the garden much. Jackdaws are always around the rooftops, but they only come down peck fat balls when the weather gets cold. This week I had a lot of fatty scraps from the kitchen to put out, and it attracted the attention of several birds. The rooks saw it first and six of them gathered in the trees around getting up the nerve to drop down to take something. They dominated the local jackdaws chasing them off when they came anywhere near, but while they came into the lower branches, they still wouldn’t come down to the food until a pair of magpies dropped in. The magpies grabbed tidbits and flew off several times, and eventually a couple of rooks gathered up the courage to try the food. They didn’t seem to like it much though, and in the end let the magpies have most of it.
Found this Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) in the house today. It’s not rare, but as a moth that flies from November through January, it is unusual. The males fly up to the top of trees to find the flightless females, who lay their eggs in leaf buds. The moths are native to Europe, but introduced and becoming a pest in North America, where they lack natural predators.
The other new species is a moss I photographed on the roof the other day; Grey-cushioned Grimmia (Grimmia pulvinata). It’s a pretty common moss in fact, growing alongside Redshank Moss in silver fluffy clumps on the tiles.
Due to work commitments I’ve not been spending much time in the garden over the last weeks, so I was happy to add species #400 today - a Red Kite (Milvus milvus) that passed over the garden this morning. These are getting more and more common around the Western edge of the Cotswolds, and usually there’s 1 or 2 around our area. I wasn’t counting every fly-over until fairly recently, so this is the first I’ve seen actually over the garden since about September. Other birds are also coming to the garden feeders a bit more now the leaves are gone from the trees, but so far it’s still surprisingly quiet most of the time.
10 November seems quite late to find a frog out and about in the garden, but what struck me about this one is how fat it is. My first thought was that frogs must put on weight to get through the winter, but researching online it appears that while they do build up an energy store, mostly this is in the form of glycogen (carbohydrate) stored in the liver, rather than a fat deposit. Certainly glycogen is a more ready source of energy, which requires less oxygen to deploy - which is useful if you are hibernating at the bottom of a pond absorbing what little dissolved oxygen there may be through the skin, as many frogs do.
Hopefully the frog was healthy - it certainly seemed it. So, perhaps it is an adult female with developed eggs ready for the spring? Finding out online when female frogs develop their eggs was surprisingly difficult, but a detailed article on toads indicated that in toads mostly the eggs are developed during the late summer, with the weight of the ovaries reaching 12-15% of body weight during August-September. Assuming it works the same with frogs, and it does make sense they they would mostly develop their eggs prior to shutting down their metabolism for hibernation, then I hope this is a gravid female ready to spawn in my pond in March/April.
Borrowed a humane mouse trap from friends and caught this Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus, species #399) in the garden shed. Not very cleverly, I opened the trap in the kitchen and then had much fun with the boys re-capturing the mouse, eventually cornering it in a plastic bag, Very happy to add only my third mammal (after grey squirrel and pipistrelle bat) to the list.
The other star find was #398, a Horse Leech (Haemopis sanguisuga) that one of the boys noticed in the pond/basin at the front of the house. I’m not sure how it got there, but nice to find a totally new kind of animal in the garden.
Only one more species to reach #400.
It’s a bit of an ongoing theme on the blog, but once again the brown wheelie-bin is proving a great place to look for garden wildlife. These bugs were all found on the underside of the lid the other day, and duly released back into the garden. The sheer number of insects to be found at the compost-bin depot must be considerable! None of these bugs were new: Beech Shieldbug is numerous in the garden thanks to the mature beech and birch trees all around, but I’ve only had one each of the Hairy and Green Shieldbugs previously, so getting all three species of these beautiful bugs together in one bin-full of garden cuttings is pretty good going.
The creatures living under the plant pots don’t seem to care so much about the temperature, but are back enjoying damper conditions. Doing a quick check around under all the plants I came across plenty of worms, arthropods, woodlice and springtails, including some new ones for the list. #392 Common Cryptops (Cryptops hortensis) is a blind centipede with 21 pairs of legs. #394 Common Shiny Woodlouse (Oniscus asellus) is quite common, but one I’d previously failed to pick out from the multitudes of woodlice around the garden. Orchesella cincta (#395) is a well marked springtail, quite large as springtails go, living in a colony under one of the pots. There was also a new Rove Beetle, Tachyporus nitidulus (#396). Some of these creatures are getting too small to photograph or even see properly without a microscope.
We may be a couple of maples short of New England, but there are lovely Autumn colours in the garden this week from the Willow, Silver Birches and Beech around the garden boundary. Birds in the garden have dropped off quite a bit and the feeders are mostly quiet, but there has been some visible migration overhead, particularly of fieldfares, redwings and skylarks. When the weather turns cold again I expect the small birds will brave the neighbourhood cats and the regular sparrowhawk to come into the garden again.
Impressed with this colony of Giant Willow Aphids (Tuberolachnus salignus), species #389, hiding in plain sight on the underside of a branch in the weeping willow. They’re impressively big, at 5mm in length apparently one of the biggest aphids in the world, with a funny-looking “sharks-fin” in the middle of their backs. These aphids are most active in the winter, all-female colonies giving birth to live young clones (males are not found) right through to mid-winter, and in fact they disappear totally from the trees for 3-4 months in spring/summer, going no-one-knows-where. You would have thought the local blue tits would gobble them up, but it seems not - it’s thought they accumulate toxins from the willow bark that make them unattractive to would-be avian predators.
Dry days in summer weren’t the best time to study mosses, but now the air is damp the mosses are coming into their own, so why not have a proper look at them. (There’s also not so much else going on out there to distract me). Have to say that I found identifying these mosses pretty difficult, especially as most do not have sporophytes at present, but searching around to see how many different kinds I could find was fun. Hopefully the IDs are mostly correct? I concentrated on those at ground-level, growing on rocks, walls and of course taking over the lawn.
Two kinds of Feather-moss are widespread; Rough-stalked Feather-moss (#68, Brachythecium rutabulum) grows in dense clumps on some rocks and bricks around the site, whereas the Common Feather-moss (#381, Kindbergia praelonga) prefers either the lawn or peaty compost in a neglected planter. Intermediate Wall Screw Moss (#382, Tortula intermedia) is growing on the limestone rocks around the edges of the lawn and Silver Haircap (# 385, Bryum argenteum) is widespread in cracks between paving slabs.
The next two species are more restricted around the garden: Dwarf Haircap (#384, Pogonatum aloides) is established in undisturbed potting compost in a large planter, while Lesser Bird’s-claw Beard-moss (#386, Barbula convoluta) is restricted to growing on the shady end of one of the railway sleepers around my raised vegetable patch.
This seems quite a good selection of mosses; there’s also Redshank Moss (#273, Ceratodon purpureus) up on the roof, and another check of the mosses up there is probably in order some time. Checking the mosses as they develop during the year may lead to me finding more, or maybe (I hope not) reviewing identification of the ones I’m showing here. There are many, many more mosses out there that could turn up.
I suspect this Small White butterfly (#8, Pieris rapae) must have hatched from a caterpillar or chrysalis hidden among vegetables I bought at the market, as I found it in one of the kitchen cupboards. Cabbage White butterflies should spend winter as pupae, but likely this one emerged prematurely due to the relative warmth of our house. Red Admiral butterflies do hibernate as adults, so it’s less of a surprise that I saw one in the garden as recently as last week, on one of the sunnier days; however I don’t expect to see any more butterflies now until 2019.
It’s 5-6 Centigrade, but surprisingly there are still some insects about. The first is a rather pretty mirid bug - Pantilius tunicatus (#367) - that dropped in via my window last week. Recognisable by its reddish-above, bright green-below colours, this species is a late season bug, seen mostly in September-October, that prefers hazel, alder & birch trees. Common Drone Fly (# 379, Eristalis tenax) is a species which can also be seen all year round. It’s a common enough insect, so not sure how it took me so long to record it. This one was taking advantage of midday sunshine for a bit of sunbathing on a south-facing wall. Finally this lacewing popped up out of some vegetation I was tidying. I think it’s a Common Green Lacewing (#267, Chrysoperla carnea), same as many I found during the summer (though the dark spots down the side are a bit curious). This species hibernates over the winter, changing its colour to brown so as not to be quite so conspicuous to predators.
Part of the bio-blitz, especially in this season, is about checking some of the hidden corners of the garden for things that I might have missed before. Procumbent Pearlwort (#366) was lurking in a damp corner of the front yard, hidden by bamboo and one of my pond/basins. A tiny Wall Rue Spleenwort (#375) growing between the bricks by the dustbins, is only my second species of fern in the garden. A solitary Dwarf Bell toadstool (#376) emerging among the mosses in a neglected planter is my first new species of fungus this Autumn; hopefully there will be a few more in the next month or so. All three are quite small and insignificant, but they are part of the ecology of the garden.