Silence in the garden-Where are all the birds?

 

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Today I am up early and start the day with a prowl around my garden patch. There is a definite chill to the early morning air, and I tug the sleeves of my fleece down to cover my hands. It feels as if Autumn is already on the breeze, shaking off the scent of summer in a flurry of fallen blossom. Now the scorching days of June seem like a very distant memory.

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It isn’t just the temperature that has changed. Through June and July the early morning air was alive with bird song. Now the garden is strangely silent. The swallows are still barrel rolling overhead, clicking and chattering as they go, but other bird life is missing. No chaffinches trilling in the Hawthorn hedge.

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No shy woodpecker clinging to the peanut feeder stealing an early breakfast before the humans appear. No Wrens belting out their unmistakeable song from the farmhouse roof. And most noticeable of all, no cheeky chirpy sparrows. A fortnight ago every barn roof overlooking the farmyard had a family of House Sparrows squabbling on the slates. The ivy covering the gable end of the old bull stall would move as if it were alive, as twenty or so little brown birds hopped about under the cover of the leaves. I had watched as Sparrows evicted a House martins couple from their nest, and duly set about making it their own. Each morning the male of this pair would sit on the gutter above the bird feeder, patiently watching my every move as I replenished the seeds. He didn’t make an appearance this morning .I spotted a single male perched on the corrugated roof of the wood shed, where a fortnight ago there had been 5 or 6 greedy little birds posturing and posing over the plates of sunflower hearts.

Where have they all gone? Probably not very far at all. And the silence in the garden isn’t a bad thing either. In fact, it is just as nature intended it.

August sees the end of the breeding season for many garden bird species. Now bird song is no longer ‘needed’ to attract a mate or hold onto a territory,  the pleasant chirping and warbling I have become accustomed to will inevitably cease.

This month also sees adult birds beginning their moult. Gradually, over the next few weeks, feathers will be shed and replaced. As the feathers drop out the birds become more vulnerable, and choose to hide themselves away until their downy covering grows anew.

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Late Summer also means the crops and wild fruits begin to ripen around the farm. Natures larder is full to bursting, with a  veritable cornucopia of seeds and berries tempting the birds out  from the garden into the fields, away from the ‘boring’ offerings of the bird table.

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Once the harvest is over, and the cool of Autumn truly settles over the farm I suspect my feathered friends will be back. It won’t be long either until the farm’s migrant visitors come to join them. The Starling flocks will arrive in their thousands, covering the  Autumnal skeletons of the bare trees with their glossy little bodies, and a new soundtrack, one of mechanical whirs and clicks will echo around the farm yard, from sun-up till sunset when they will leave, as one, to roost.

 

 

 

 

#MolluscMonday

The sky over the farm has alternated between various shades of grey for the past few days. Steel grey, iron grey, dove grey, slate grey, ash grey, grey, grey, grey! We have had torrential downpours and thunderstorms interspersed with gusty winds and  fog. Everything underfoot is damp, much to the delight of the molluscs.

I spent most of the morning wandering around the garden, turning over rocks, rooting in bushes and upending empty plant pots in search of snails.

First to be found  was this specimen, lurking behind the potted Centaurea.

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Garden Snail

If I said to you “Imagine a snail” I’m pretty sure the Garden Snail, Helix aspersa, would be amongst the images you conjured up.

These snails are widespread across the UK, often living in close contact with humans. Preferred habitat includes gardens and park where they are able to munch their way through a variety of greenery.Wet daytime conditions can bring them out of their shells, but for the most part they are nocturnal. They move about using a large muscular foot and copious amounts of mucus. A study by the University of Exeter showed how snails can travel the length of an average UK garden in one night, moving at a surprising speedy pace (1 meter/hour). They also discovered that these snails often ‘piggy back’ along other snail trails, allowing them to conserve energy.

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Around the corner, clinging precariously to a shrub, I spotted this Grove snail. This species is also known as the Brown lipped snail, due to the brown band around the aperture .  Grove snails are polymorphic, meaning the colour of the shell can vary. It can be brown,white,cream,yellow or even red, like this individual found adorning the garden gate

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They look awfully similar to another common species, the White lipped snail.The obvious difference in appearance is the colour of the aperture band.

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However, just to make life really complicated, there is a colour morph of the Grove Snail that has a white lip! Identification then falls to dissection and differences in the snails reproductive organs.

Along the top of the old chicken shed, in amongst the straggly tussocks of grass and wandering weeds I found several Strawberry Snails (Trochulus striolatus).

DSC_0954__1468274671_72395These snails have much flatter shells with pronounced ribbing and a ‘belly button’ like hole on the underside (umbilicus)

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At the top of the garden I found this collection of broken shells, discarded on the path that leads to the old Ty Bach. You may have noticed small piles of discarded, shattered shells like this around your patch, a sign that a thrush has feasted. These song birds use stones, or in this case flat slates, to smash shells rendering their contents edible. They tend to return to a particular ‘anvil’ repeatedly, leaving a trail of mangled carapaces in their wake.

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To finish off my #MolluscMonday I marked some of the Garden snail’s on the patio. Hopefully this will give us an insight into the size of the snail population in our garden.

I have always had a soft spot for snails, and my day spent grubbing about into the undergrowth has made me appreciate them even more. Growing up in suburban London, with a postage stamp garden, wildlife was a real novelty. Snails were one thing we had in spades, and we used to study them at ever opportunity.

I know not everyone shares my appreciation of these slimy creatures. The ability to make short work of consuming a vegetable patch has earned them a spot on many Gardener’s ‘Top 10 pest’s’ list. Apart from chomping their way through your prized Hostas, they may also pose a hazard to your pets. They can act as a host for Angiostrongylus vasorum, commonly known as ‘Lungworm’. This parasite can prove deadly for dogs, who come into contact with it when they accidentally (or deliberately, some dogs seem to love the taste!) ingest snails or slugs when out and about. For more information on how to protect your pet, check out the Lungworm Aware campaign.

 

 

 

 

Day 13-B is for ….

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Tree bumblebee

Bumble bee! C has learnt the alphabet off by heart, back to front and probably sideways too. She loves finding words for each letter, and Bee is obviously the go to insect for B!

Since planting the patio ‘Pollinator Cafe’ I have become more aware of the presence of Bumblebees in our garden .I will confess I have needed a bit of help from the BBCT to decipher which species is which. The beautiful amethyst and white flowers of the Centaurea are visited most days by busy little ‘Bombus hypnorum‘ , or Tree bumblebees. The other pollinator friendly plants seem to be less favoured at present.Perhaps it isn’t the right time for their nectar just yet?!

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Bombus hypnorum

The foxgloves on the hedgerow behind the ‘meadow’ have just bloomed. I love Digitalis, it reminds me of Beatrix Potter tales and my childhood running wild in Ireland. The Garden bumblebees  (Bombus hortorum) seem to love it even more. These specimens are rather large, so much so that the other day I thought their was a bird or rodent moving in amongst the foxgloves. I went in for a closer look and was surprised to discover the commotion was being caused by this chap.

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Bombus hortorum.

I spent a good half an hour staring at the foxgloves, marvelling at the different adaptations that they have evolved to ensure pollination occurs. To start with, the purple colour of the petals acts as a beacon to any passing bees.The wide opening of the flower itself is a perfect landing spot with the spotty pattern acting as  natural ‘runway markers’,directing the bee onto the nectar. The bell shaped flower is a tight fit for the bee, and the foxgloves reproductive organs are suspended above the entrance. This is a clever mechanism for ensuring pollen brushes off from the stamen onto the bee.Pollen carried from other plants is also rubbed off the bee as it passes the stigma.The little translucent fronds within the entrance of each flower are guard hairs. They act as a mechanism to keep out small insects, which could hit the nectar without touching any pollen- all reward without any work!

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Looking at foxgloves and thinking about the detail has been one of the unexpected treasures of my 30 days wild.

Day 10 – A clattering of Jackdaw

DSC_0592.JPGThis evening the sky above the farmhouse is peppered with Jackdaw. From my vantage point in the front garden  I estimate there to be over 100 individuals preparing to roost. I watch their black silhouettes wheeling and gliding over the Orchard before they finally settle in a stand of Sycamore.

There are 3 nest sites on the farmyard. Nest one, which has been used for the last 3 years, is in the eaves of the old Turkey Feathering Loft. This nest has chicks, although I don’t know how many. The adults are constantly popping through the gap under the tin roof to feed their hungry brood.

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I have tried sneaking a look inside the nest but to get close enough requires scaling a storage unit that was built decades ago, and I really don’t think it will hold my weight!

Nest two, used for the past 2 years is in a hollow in the trunk of an ancient sycamore by the front gate. This doesn’t have any chicks in, and I think it may only be used sporadically by last years chicks from nest one.

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Nest site 3 is new, and is located in another Sycamore tree hollow. It is exceptionally well camouflaged and virtually invisible from the ground. This nest too is full of hungry mouths, and an awful racket explodes from the tree at feeding time. This tends to draw the attention of other nearby Jackdaws, who subsequently flock to the tree.

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Jackdaw are probably my favourite member of the Corvidae, followed closely by Jays. They are the smallest of the Crow family and can be distinguished by their light blue eyes and silvery neck feathers. They strut when they walk, as if going along to the sound of their own personal Bee Gees soundtrack (Ah ah ah ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive). Being social birds they tend to roost together of an evening, often with crows or rooks, hence the large numbers gathering over our farm. The collective noun for a group of Jackdaw is either a ‘train’ or  a ‘clattering’. I much prefer the latter. It has a touch of onomatopoeia, conjuring up their harsh ‘jack-chak’ call .

 

 

 

 

Day 5- Bioblitz

 

Today was the last day of C’s half term, and most of it was spent trying to complete the garden ‘bioblitz survey’. I soon discovered that this was going to be a bit more complicated than I had thought. I should know by now that most things in life are, when you are accompanied by a teething baby and a toddler shaped Tasmanian devil.

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Our ‘bird banqueting hall’ in the midst of the nettle patch.

 

Our garden is a wild and messy jungle. Once upon a time, when F’s grandparents lived here it was a rather different affair. Tidy borders and meticulously pruned shrubs were the order of the day.Everything grew in its allotted place, and wild flowers were considered the enemy. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint) the house and garden then spent 12 years without a human occupant, and both became a bit forgotten. Now it is in my incapable hands. As I am really not a gardener (I have managed to kill cacti…)I haven’t done much to it. I really do prefer it the way it is at the moment, with Nature allowed free rein. No ‘rewilding’ necessary here!

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Red Admiral alights on thistle.

 

I started the list with the trees – not too many and something I was confident in identifying. The hedgerow that borders the garden has several mature specimens. There are 2 ash , a sycamore, hawthorn and oak. In the garden itself we have an immature oak tree, which has become part of the ‘bird banqueting hall’. We also have a lazy magnolia. Father in Law threatened to chop it down 3 years ago, but I spied a single flower so it had a reprieve. It has never produced a petal since!

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Wood louse explosion.

 

Next I went for a poke about in the log pile with C. Levering up a large sycamore stump sent woodlice and centipedes scuttling for cover. There were worms wriggling through the leaf litter, and two millipedes locked in an embrace. We also uncovered some leatherjackets and another larva of some sort. It was fascinating to watch: its head end looked a bit ‘Alien-esque’ with hooks protruding around what I presumed were mouthparts. It was surprisingly mobile, despite its stubby appendages, and soon wriggled free. C was mesmerised by the yellow and grey garden slugs we found, sliming and sliding under the bark at the base of the pile. A solitary black slug sat hunched under another log, with some wriggling nematodes as housemates.

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Unidentified larva

 

We moved on to the rock pile- formed from the debris of the chicken shed. We found a couple of garden snails, one yellow and one brown lipped snail.

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Brown lipped snail

 

By this time the sun was beating down on the garden, so we moved to the shade of the patio. Here we watched the ‘customers’ at our newly opened bee café. The favourite plant at the moment is the Centaurea, ‘Amethyst on Snow’.

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Bee customer

 

After a while I went to inspect ‘the meadow ‘. Red admiral, speckled woods and the odd orange tipped butterfly danced over the patch. Damselflies, both red and blue, flitted past  Various species of fly hummed about , occasionally alighting on the grass stems. I came across what I think is a lacewing resting on top of the log pile, and several moths skittered amongst the nettles.

By now C decided that she’d had enough, and headed inside to watch some CBeebies. JoJo had drifted off for a nap so I was free to indulge in some bird watching. Soon enough I spotted a great tit hanging off the feeders under the sycamore. Chaffinches bounced in the hawthorn, and a wren warbled from its perch on the oak. The jackdaws were feeding their brood, with one lookout at the top of the sycamore. A pair of collared doves raided the bird table, and a blackbird came to perch on the garden gate. Our new friendly little robin came to watch proceedings, perching on the corner of the house. Last of all, a shy dunnock hop hopped along the chicken shed, picking at bits of seed.

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This is our new pal.

 

After a  while, JoJo woke and it was time to adjourn for lunch. The flowers and plants would have to wait for today, as we had a long list of mundane chores to tackle.

Although we didn’t finish, the ‘bioblitz’ made me realise how little I really knew about my own back garden. It made me mindful of how I take the space for granted, and how much life is living alongside me.

Day 4 (Al)Luring

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Todays activity…moth trapping. I used to live in a very rural part of Ireland and remember moths covering our kitchen window at night if we turned the indoor lights on. I haven’t seen anything like that since living in Wales, and can’t actually remember the last time I saw a moth . This seemed like the perfect chance to become reacquainted.

I knew that there were essentially 3 options:

  1. Ready made light trap.
  2. Home made light trap.
  3. Sugar solution.
  4. Rotten fruit

The first option turned out to be a bit too expensive for my ‘surving-on-maternity-pay’ budget. Fear of electrocution or a power tool related trip to A & E crossed ‘home made’ light traps of my list of options. We already have a ‘butterfly snack bar’ out, with fruit gently decomposing , so that left option 3.

Sugar lures seemed the safest, cheapest method of seeing Moths. Apparently there are various different tried and tested ‘recipes’available . The common denominator amongst them seems to be sugar (well Duh!) and beer, fortunately both things I consider to be ‘store cupboard essentials’.

My chosen recipe used approximately 250ml of stout, 500g brown sugar and 3 tbsp syrup. Other alternatives are treacle, and dark molasses sugar is the bees (or rather moths)knees. You can also try adding a drop of rum or vanilla essence to the mixture to make it even more tantalising.

In case you fancy giving it a go, this is what I did:

  • Put ingredients in pan and bring to boil, stirring continuously.
  • allow to simmer for 5 minutes before removing from heat.
  • Allow to cool, stirring occasionally.
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Sugary stouty syrupy goodness…it smelled divine!

 

The site I found the recipe on suggested pouring the mix into a coffee jar when cool, but I decided to work with it whilst it was still warm. I took the pan outside and selected a few logs (with ready made ‘handles’) to adorn, as well as an old gatepost at the side of the house. It was quite good fun!

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Then it was time to wait. I’m not very good at being patient, so it was a good thing that I had the usual bedtime struggle with the baby and toddler to distract me.

I decided not to get my hopes up. This might not be a very lucky night, and I might not attract any moths at all. Apparently some nights are naturally better than others (low wind, warm and humid conditions) but sometimes no moths will appear even if the night is deemed ideal.

At 10.30 pm I couldn’t wait any longer. I grabbed a torch, and some red acetate to act as a filter (Moths are less affected by red light). Guess what? Not one moth on any of the sugar lures. 2 woodlice were enjoying a snack but that was it.

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I did spot a few moths flitting about over head. One alighted on the wall long enough to get a photo, but I haven’t been able to identify it yet. DSC_0427.JPG

I think this may be one to revisit and try out another recipe. I did enjoy being out after dark though, something I haven’t been able to do since having my children. As a student in Edinburgh I used to venture up Arthurs seat in the dark so I could look down on the city lights .When I first moved to Wales I often went for runs on the beach once the sun had gone down, relishing the alone time and the crashing waves, cold sand beneath my toes . As kids in Ireland we would play out in the summer until we couldn’t see the ground in front of us. We would take torches and go out to see the Sika deer that came to graze at night in our fields, or watch bats or barn owls. On one occasion my sister and I set our alarms for 2 am to get up and watch  a meteor shower. I don’t think I would have thought to go out at night again if it wasn’t for the 3o days wild challenge.

Day 3-Gone a hunting.

TWT 30 Days Wild_countdown_03Day 3 already, time is flying. This morning everyone was awake by 4.30am so this post should probably be about the dawn chorus I was privileged to hear thanks to my child shaped alarm clocks. It isn’t- mainly because I crawled back under the duvet and tried unsuccessfully to get a few more minutes sleep.

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Voila…a scavenger hunt fit for 30 Days Wild.

By 8.30 am everyone was dressed and fed. We had already read 3 million books (possibly an exaggeration), played with sensory toys and sung an awful lot of nursery rhymes. Time to head outside. Whilst C was putting her wellies on the wrong feet, I managed to draw up a scavenger hunt suitable for a toddler and baby. Considering I was using a gardening book as a ruler, I don’t think the result is too bad!

 

C managed to work out what she had to do, and raced off with her trusty collecting bucket. We had lots of fun figuring out where we might find things, and managed to tick off everything apart from butterflies. In hindsight it was probably a bit early for them.

 

First up were flowers…easy peasy! C chose some buttercups from the meadow patch .  Next were leaves…oak leaves to be specific, but my drawing wasn’t great! C knew they were leaves though, which was something!DSC_0373

We headed to the log pile to see if we could find some of the mini-beasts. With one flip of a log we ticked of millipede, woodlice and a worm. I was so incredibly proud of C- this is the first time she has held a worm. She has developed some sensory issues over the past year, and up until this point hasn’t wanted to touch ‘creepy crawlies’. Today felt like a break through. She gently picked the worm out of the palm of my hand and studied it carefully before breaking into song …”There’s a worm at the bottom of my garden….and its name is Wiggly Woo!” We were in fits of giggles.

DSC_0382She also found a snail shell, hidden in the moss on the chicken shed wall. I couldn’t see it at first, but C has amazing ability to pick out tiny details after just a quick glance at her surroundings.DSC_0387We also found an obliging Garden Spider, but it didn’t make it into the final picture! It seemed too content on its web so we left it be. Once the last item was ticked off, C skipped off across the garden, flapping her arms pretending to be an Owl. Game over for another day!

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Our scavenged items; Flowers, oak leaf, millipede, wood louse, pebble, feathers, stick, spider, butterfly, grass blade, worm and snail.