The bird of night did sit

Over the past week or so, young Tawny owls (Strix aluco) have been vociferous from dusk until well into the night. For a species so notoriously difficult to see, the fledglings’ squeaks seem to resonate noisily from every corner of the garden as they demand regular supplies of small rodents, frogs, insects and worms. The adults are rarely heard at this time of year as, in addition to placating their demanding brood, they are going through a moult. However, as permanent residents, their nocturnal cries pervade our dreams during every season.

Adding to the general hullabaloo in our small woodland is the ear-piercing screech of the Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), the melodious (more rattling when agitated) call of the Blackbird (Turdus merula), and the immediately recognisable song of the Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) – a migratory bird, quite insignificant in appearance but with a very strident voice. Excited flocks of Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) are also rowdily flitting through the trees chasing moths and other insects.

Flora-wise, the hairy-stemmed Hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), which is rather smelly but good for bees, is a great deal in evidence. White clover (Trifolium repens) – a valuable source of pollen – is particularly prevalent in the meadow and around the pond, and the attractive Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is running rampant, not only in the garden but on roadside verges, lanes and waste ground throughout the region.

Sadly, our bees’ nest appears to have been deserted, probably due to the heavy rains this month. Nevertheless, Honeybees (Apis mellifera), Bumblebees (Bombus species) and Solitary bees (Andrena, Lasioglossum etc.) are relatively abundant on pollen and nectar-rich plants whenever the clouds disperse.

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Halcyon days

At 7:45 p.m. on Wednesday, I was deeply involved in reading a novel when I was disturbed from my reverie by a familiar ‘peeep, peeep’ sort of sound in the garden. I carefully made my way to the window, raised my binoculars and scanned the area around the pond. It was then that I spotted him: a spectacular male kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) in all his flamboyant finery, sitting atop the Weeping willow watching the fish. I had no sooner identified him than, with a flash of turquoise and orange, he was gone.

We have enjoyed regular kingfisher visits in previous years but this little fellow was the first to appear in the garden for a long time (perhaps due to those two successive harsh winters we experienced). I listened to his ringing call for several minutes without sighting him, and then all became silent.

About 20 minutes later, I looked up from my book and he was back in the same spot, perched motionless on an overhanging branch. He remained in that position for several seconds before plunging into the water with his dagger-like bill thrust forward. At the very moment he hit the surface with a splash, our youngest dog came thundering across the lawn in hot pursuit of a Grey squirrel. The kingfisher bobbed back up, flicked his tail and whirred off at great speed in the direction of the woods. I scrutinised the garden until it was almost dark but I didn’t see him again that evening.

The rain poured down incessantly on Thursday. Our feeders were full of all the usual characters but there was no glimpse or sound of the kingfisher. By dusk I felt quite downcast and thought it unlikely we would see him again.

There was a brief respite from the showers this morning – indeed, the sun was peeking through the trees by 9 o’clock. It was about this time that I heard a short sharp whistle, looked towards the Weeping willow and spotted the kingfisher back on his perch. Then in a fleeting flash of colour he was off again.

He has remained in and around the garden all day – despite periods of heavy rain – so I’m hopeful that he has clocked our thriving pond and decided to stick around for the rich pickings. Perhaps he has a nest nearby and is taking food to a female sitting on eggs. Or he may have young ones to provide for. Alternatively, he might be seeking a mate – it certainly isn’t too late in the season for him to court a female and raise a brood.

After centuries of polluted waterways, drained wetlands and vain ladies utilising the Common kingfisher’s wonderful electric blue plumage to adorn their fancy hats, it’s nothing short of miraculous that this species has survived on mainland Britain.

Due to its depletion, this amazing bird is quite rightly protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. We are greatly privileged to have it visit our land and I’ll be keeping a close eye on our new male to see what he does next.

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Nature remains

Thousands of fluffy white seed heads from the willow trees have been drifting past the window all morning – giving the garden the appearance of a well shaken snow globe.

After a gloriously sunny Monday, which saw the re-emergence of the Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly (Calopteryx virgo), today is rather overcast with the odd droplet of rain in the air.

While the country celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee over the Bank Holiday, life on our land continued undisturbed by patriotic fervour. Blackbirds (Turdus merula), Coal tits (Periparus ater) and Great tits (Parus major) are feeding their young in the front garden, a splendid male Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) has been spotted visiting the seed feeders over the last couple of days and Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are blossoming in the wild patch behind the house. There are, however, signs of freshly dug soil in our woodland – quite a mound, in fact – but definitely not of the mole hill variety. A fox, perhaps? Or even a badger. Further investigation is required.

I can report that a small colony of Bumblebees (Bombus) has definitely set up home in a disused rodent tunnel on the bank beneath a partially buried tree trunk. The site doesn’t seem especially busy at the moment but individuals emerge periodically to visit nearby flowers. Following the unremitting rain last Sunday, I was a rather concerned that the nest might have been washed away, so was relieved to find it still intact the next morning.

A racing pigeon arrived two days ago and appears reluctant to leave. He’s been hanging around with D’s white doves, so was thrown a handful of seed this morning and gobbled up every last one. Something tells me that he’s losing interest in returning home.

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Cobbler of the woods

The rain arrived this afternoon, breaking one of the longest spells of continuous fine weather I can recall for many months. The butterflies and damselflies went immediately into hiding but the wild birds continued to form disorderly queues for the complimentary seeds and peanuts.

A regular visitor at the moment is a female Greater spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), who announces her arrival with a distinctive ‘kick kick’ call. She alights on a tree trunk, hops jerkily from left to right before flitting over to one of the many suet feeders that dangle from trellises, overhangs and almost every other fixed object in the garden.

She’s instantly recognisable by her large bill, striking black and white plumage and scarlet under-tail. The smaller birds tend to scatter in her wake but she’s easily spooked by humans – and who can blame her.

As a child growing up by the coast, in a part of town dominated by cliff ledges rather than trees, my experience of woodpeckers (spotted or otherwise) was fairly limited. Not until I did a brief stint as a voluntary warden at the wonderful RSPB reserve in Arne (Dorset) did I first see various members of the Picidae family up close.

For several bitterly cold weeks in the mid 1980s I was ensconced in a small log-cabin, deep within a vast oak wood. During my time there I carried out a variety of tasks, ranging from rhodie bashing to counting ducks, but none were quite so rewarding as filling up a wire bird feeder hanging outside my residence. For my trouble, I was amazed and delighted every morning by the sight of a Greater spotted woodpecker tucking into peanuts as it clung to the flimsy holder with its powerful feet.

Although I’ve become slightly blasé about seeing this remarkable bird feeding just a short distance from my kitchen window, I’m always filled with optimism when I hear its familiar drumming sound coming from the woods. Why? Well, quite simply because it’s a symbol of spring. And spring is indubitably my favourite time of year.

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A sunday stroll in the woods

The church bells rang out in the distance as I walked in the garden this morning.

Over these last few brilliantly hot and sunny days our wood and meadow have been crazily active with insect life. The Cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis), with its scarlet head, pronotum and elytra, is frequently to be found among the nettles. The Large White (Pieris brassicae) butterfly flaps cumbersomely through the paddock, while its smaller relative, the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines), perches delicately on Dandelion (Taraxacum agg.) and Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) flowers.  Other butterflies on the wing at present are the Comma (Polygonia c-album) – looking for all the world like a withered old leaf – and the strikingly gorgeous Peacock (Inachis io).

Around the pond in particular the iridescent brown-green Beautiful Demoiselle (Caloptery Virgo) damselfly is emerging into the sunshine. The Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) can be spotted alighting on a variety of plants along the water’s edge, sharing some of its favourite spots with the gregarious Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum), which seemingly feeds, mates and perches on almost any garden plant.

Over the last couple of days I’ve recorded Common vetch (Vicia sativia), Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) and Honesty (Lunaria annua) flowering on the margins of the wood. Although the latter has been a garden escape since the late 16th century, over time it has become naturalised in the British countryside – especially in hedgerows and open woodland.

We may well have a small bees’ nest developing in a hole on the bank behind the barn, which is rather exciting. As they say, watch this space…

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Wales’ slow food town

In case you were wondering, I do occasionally venture out of my garden to face the hordes…

Mold is a bustling market town nestled beneath the Clwydian Hills and, as my title suggests, was Wales’ first cittaslow.  Since medieval times traders have set up their stalls on the high street and, to this day, it is the largest and most popular of its kind in North Wales. D and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to nip over there after discovering, to our disappointment, that the poultry seller who normally plies his feathered wares outside Charlies, in Queensferry, wouldn’t return until the second Sunday in June.

Decision made, we parked up in the town centre for a mere 20p and went in search of bargains. The clear blue sky and bright sunshine made for an especially upbeat atmosphere and we came home bearing a large dog bed (a snip at £5) and a china mug with the cheerful image of a robin on the side.

There’s a street market held here every Wednesday and Saturday throughout the year, and somewhere in the region of 70 stalls selling a huge variety of produce. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity.

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Who countest the steps of the Sun

Germander speedwellD’s brother arrived this morning with a tray of Giant sunflowers for us to plant in the front garden. Although native to the Americas (once revered by the Incas), I find these cheerful, if garish, heliotropes absolutely charming. Call me self-indulgent but I’m overcome with pleasure whenever I encounter a field filled with gently swaying sunflowers gazing towards the sky. And of course, they’re extremely attractive to wild birds, bees and other insects.

I spent a couple hours walking in the garden after lunch to see what the sun had brought out.  I immediately spotted Wood speedwell (Veronica montana) and Herb robert (Geranium robertianum) flowering in the meadow. The woodland floor was carpeted with Ramsons (Allium ursinum), which filled the air with the whiff of garlic. Then, on the banks beneath the trees were Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and Red campion (Silene dioica).

I discovered Betty stretched out among the daisies in Grace’s (our pony) field. She is a true sun worshiper and requires regular massages with sun cream during the warm weather or she turns quite pink. When her brother was still alive, they would lie back to back, like rashers of bacon in a pan, soaking up every last ray, until it was time for bed.

By the time I reached the wild patch at the back of the house it was alive with Orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines), fighting territorially over a large patch of Garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) – also known as Jack by the Hedge. Then, as I peered at a Common dog violet (Viola riviniana) hidden amongst the vegetation, an exceedingly small Common frog (Rana temporaria) crossed my path, no doubt searching for succulent insects and slugs.

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