Game in the Garden

I was woken up by this Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa, #435) calling loudly from the top of the fence in the morning sun, and dashed downstairs to get an into-the-sun photo. This lovely bird joins the male Common Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) that’s been around for the last couple of weeks. This isn’t the first Red-legged Partridge in the garden; they usually arrive once or twice a year, but always in the early Spring (March/April). Probably this is a male bird looking for territory and/or a mate away from its winter covey. The pheasant is likely on a similar mission, though often they do also spend the winter around the garden. I expect both birds will soon give up and move on to try another location fairly soon.

More Spring Flowers

The spring equinox has been and gone, and there are signs of early spring all around the garden. The bluebells are close to flowering, but already blooming nicely Common Dog Violet, Forget-me-Not and the first Plum blossons. Leaf-burst seems early this year, and among the freshly opened willow leaves a singing Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) is another harbinger of Spring.

Small Snails

Lots of snails made it through the winter and have come crawling out of garden waste in the composting bin. Strawberry Snail (Trochulus striolatus) on the left, is one of the commonest snails in the garden, but the Girdled Snail (Hygromia cinctella) on the right is a new one for the list (#428). Girdled Snail has a distinctive white stripe around its keel and the shell is smoother than on the similarly-sized Strawberry Snail. It is yet another non-native species, originating in Mediterranean Europe and only discovered in UK in 1950 in Devon. From there it has slowly spread over much of the England, as it has also crawled its way across much of Central and Northern Europe.

Hawthorn Shield Bug (#427)

Starting to see a few insects around the garden now; this one was hiding up in the chard picked from my vegetable plot for dinner. Shield bugs over-winter as adults, so maybe it’s been there all winter? The Hawthorn Shield Bug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) is quite common, and although it has a preference for hawthorns (which I don’t have in the garden), it also is found in birch and hazel trees. It is quite similar to the closely-related Birch Shield Bug, but differs in it’s more elongated shape and it’s burgundy-coloured, pointy shoulders. I’ve put both species side by side below for comparison.

Coral Spot Fungus (#423)

Strong winds brought down many twigs from high up in the large beech tree above the garden. Some of the dead wood had these hard, orange dots that had pushed up through the bark. These “pustules” are from Coral Spot Fungus (Nectria cinnabarina), a common saprophyte growing on dead wood of hardwood trees. Though it starts on the dead wood, it does eventually spread to healthy wood, contributing to the eventual decay of the tree. There were several small insects on the infected wood, many more than on the healthy twigs that had come down. I suppose the trees natural defenses against insects may be weakened by the fungus or (or probably and) the decaying wood has more food available to insects.

#423 Coral Spot Fungus (Nectria cinnabarina)

#423 Coral Spot Fungus (Nectria cinnabarina)

Spring Cleaning

Tidying out the shed this weekend didn’t turn up as many bugs as I was expecting. The shed starts to be quite rotten, especially around the base, so there is a lot of entry points for all kinds of creature to crawl in through. In the event though, apart from a few spiders and hibernating mosquitoes, there wasn’t so much to keep me from my spring cleaning. The spiders were mostly Black Lace Weavers (Amaurobius ferox, #103); I’m not sure where the other big spiders present back in the Autumn were hiding themselves. The mosquitoes, which were plentiful, were Common House Mosquito / House Gnat (Culex pipiens, #332). Happily neither one of them bites people much.

Elsewhere I disturbed a couple of toads that were getting intimate in the log store and found these primroses (Primula vularis), which were new for the list (#422)

Marvelous Mosses

Many of the mosses are looking good right now; nice and green thanks to the damper winter weather and in some cases sending out setae to spread their spores. The Wall Screw Moss is shooting out lots of long, straight setae with pointed capsules, while the Rough-stalked Feather Moss still has last-years dried hockey-stick like setae. #420 Silky Wall Feather Moss (Homalothecium sericeum) is one I failed to separate last year, though actually it’s quite plentiful in the garden, forming dense blankets on some of the limestone stones along the garden path.

#6 Sparrowhawk

I was happy to get this shot of 'Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) on next-door’s roof, as usually I only see them in flight, either soaring high over the garden, or bombing through on the hunt. This female is the first I’ve seen around the garden for several weeks, since a mail that hung around for a while back in November.. There were a few other new bird arrivals yesterday, such as a trio of Lesser Redpolls (a bit scarce this winter), a cock pheasant (a regular visitor most winters, but not this year),.a new female Blackcap, a small party of Redwings (the first for a few weeks) and group of Blackbirds present in the morning. Perhaps this is a sign of the season, and some migration going on.

#6 Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

#6 Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Winter Bird Survey

Last weekend saw my final survey visit for the new BTO English Winter Bird Survey. This survey covers my regular Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) km square just outside Broadway, Worcestershire. Due to the recent warm weather it was more like an early Breeding Bird Survey, with resident birds like song thrush, robin, wren, chaffinch, linnet and skylarks singing everywhere. There were some winter redwings still around and a fly-over siskin, but due to the lack of leaves I saw more of the resident birds than I often do when I visit in April. Bullfinch, marsh tit and treecreeper are some of the less common residents on this square that were showing well. Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers are easiest seen at this time of year, but one seen calling and drumming on a dead tree is a rare sighting here or in indeed most other places in UK.

I liked doing the survey on my regular square and seeing different birds there, but doing the expected 4 visits was a problem as short winter days make it hard to do the survey around other weekend activities, especially in the pre-Christmas period. As it was I only managed the two visits in December and February, but I do think this was enough to accurately survey the wintering bird population on the site.

Insects Emerging

Warm early spring weather in UK, where daytime temperatures have reached up to 17C, are encouraging the first insects to emerge from hibernation. I didn’t get a shot of the first yellow Brimstone butterflies (#418, Gonepteryx rhamni) in the garden as they don’t tend to hand around, but there are plenty of bees and flies to be seen. This house fly, #419 Helina evecta, was quite sluggish in the cold of late afternoon, so kept still enough to get a decent close-up photo. It seems an early emerging species, to be seen on early spring flowers. The first 7 spotted ladybirds are out and about too. A Wood Mouse (#399, Apodemus sylvaticus) seen a couple of times out in broad daylight, was also a welcome sight.

Life in the Leaf Litter

I tend to leave many of the fallen leaves from Autumn lying on the ground over the winter. This may not be gardening best-practice, but when the winter is hard leaf litter provides a shelter for insects and other creatures and somewhere for hungry birds to look for food when other options are no longer available. Last winter during “The Beast from the East” several blackbirds and redwings spent most of their days combing the fallen leaves for winter food. This year there seemed enough other food available and perhaps it wasn’t worth running the gauntlet of the neighbourhood cats to spend so much time on the ground.

Having raked up some of the excess leaves and put them in the compost bin, it was interesting to see this morning just how many bugs had crawled out. So many snails and four species of slug for starters, including #417 Marsh Slug (Deroceras laeve). Lots of Birch Catkin Bugs seem to have over-wintered in the leaf litter, along with loads of tiny spiders, springtails and mites. A small tear-shaped rove beetle, #417 Tachyporus hypnorum, was also new for the list. The hairy looking caterpillar is I think from a Scarlet Tiger moth.

Teaming with life, it shows how valuable leaf-litter is for over-wintering bugs (and the birds and animals that might eat them); a good argument for leaving the leaves through to spring.

Spring Flowers

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.

Elder Tree Dead-wood Fungi

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.

Snowbirds

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.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

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.

Murmuration at Kemerton

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.

One year of BTO Garden Birdwatch

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.

Winter Thrushes

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.

Kitchen Scraps

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.

#401 Winter Moth

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.