Well, it seems that our mild autumn has come to an end, and the chill of winter has firmly settled upon us. At this time of year plenty of garden birds can be seen rummaging around looking for food, both on the ground and in the bare branched trees. Blackbirds (Turdus merula) are one the most familiar sights in the winter British garden, and didn’t choose make themselves scarce last week while Shirley and myself were disrupting the peace and digging up the entrance garden bed. One particular female followed our progress throughout the day, and as a testament to our healthy worm population, was already nice and plump.
While the male blackbird is distinctive for his glossy, jet black plumage, and bright orange bill, the females and juveniles are often overlooked. There are plenty of juveniles about this time of year, and for their inexperience are often more cocky than older birds. Like the female, they are a uniform brown above with a pale, speckled underside, though the colouration is more reddy than the female, who wears a distinctively dull shade of brown.
The UK blackbirds are mostly resident, though some may migrant to Southern Europe during the winter. Those that stay will feed mostly on insects and earthworms, and are often seen probing the ground and tossing leaves out of the way in their search or them. An untidy pile of leaves in the lawn is often an indication that a blackbird has been on the prowl. However, they will generally eat whatever they can find, especially during the lean months of winter, and are happy to take berries from low shrubs such as cotoneaster, and windfall fruit such as apples.
If there’s a shortage of berries in your neighbourhood, you can help out the local blackbirds, as well as the other birds, by putting out a mixture of food to help tide them over. Blackbirds are particular to suet pellets and fruit set out on the ground or on a low table feeder. Make sure it’s a safe distance from any handy hiding places for predators though! If you have the space though, why not plant some berry-bearing plants for the birds next year? A lot of bird populations are struggling due to shortages of food and habitat, and even some of our most traditional garden birds are declining at a worrying rate. Happily, with around 6 million pairs of breeding blackbirds in the British Isles, there will be no missing the exquisite song that, come early February, will herald the coming of spring.
Photos: Juvenile blackbird (left); Female blackbird on feeder (right). Nigel Blake (rspb-images.com)
With the chilly weather of late, the birds are our constant companions as we go about our gardening business. There are always one or two robins with a serious case of cupboard love about, keeping a sharp eye on what the spade turns up… We’re noticing increasing numbers of blackbirds ferreting around in the base of the ‘dead hedge’ we laid last winter, so I suppose they’re finding insects and earthworms in the leaf litter…. Two weeks ago I was delighted to see not one, but two song-thrushes amongst the bright gold of the fallen field maple leaves – we usually hear them in the summer months, but I have never actually seen one in the garden before, so I’m delighted! I’ll be letting those fallen leaves lie, to encourage the earthworms which are such a good source of food.
This summer we’ve had regular visits from both greater spotted and green woodpeckers, with their distinctive and different calls…. The chick, chick of the greater spotted, as opposed to the hysterical laughter of the green woodpecker. They enjoy the environment of the wet woodland beside the garden, but both are likely to be occasional visitors to suburban gardens.
This time of the year we start seeing fascinating newcomers around – we often have fieldfares overhead, those most-elegant members of the thrush family, who move south to our shores in search of food in the winter. We’re usually alerted to their presence by their slightly hoarse chack-chack-chack in the tops of the trees around us. Much smaller visitors to the treetops in the garden are flocks of siskins, with their endearingly nasal twittering as they forage for alder seeds amongst the high branches.
So, what avian friends do you see in your gardens? Why not let us know – it’s our Big Garden Birdwatch on 26 and 27 January, all you need to do is count the birds in your garden or a local park for one hour then tell us what you see. You can either download a form here: www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch or pick up a paper copy from your local RSPB reserve.
The Flatford Wildlife Garden gets more than its share of colourful and interesting insects, and with a shady, overgrown ditch at the bottom of the slope, it’s no surprise that we regularly see dragonflies and damselflies hunting in the garden during warm weather. What is surprising is the abundance of an unusual and strikingly beautiful species of damselfly that seems to have found a stronghold in the garden; the Willow Emerald.
Snapped on the same day as when the Hummingbird Hawk-Moth paid a visit, this beautiful creature was sunning itself on tall-growing vegetation. Unlike other species of damselfly, the willow emerald holds its wings out at an angle to its body when at rest. Not only does this help to distinguish them from other species, but it also tends to make them a little more conspicuous. Willow Emeralds are not native to this country; in recent years they have begun to spread from Southern and Eastern Europe, and appear to be slowly colonising the East coast of England. Though reports are sparse, they have been spotted in many areas in East Anglia and seem to co-exist happily with our native species of damselflies.
Their preferred habitat is near still or slow moving watercourses, with plenty of shady cover in the form of over hanging trees such as willow and alder, a preference for which they are named. Both grow by the ditch at the bottom of the garden; in spring look out for odd galls growing on the branches of these trees. These are often the result of the eggs being laid directly into the crevices of the bark. Most dragonfly and damselfly species lay their eggs on submerged vegetation by the water’s edge, where the larva develop, only leaving the water once they are ready to emerge as adults. However, the larva of the willow emerald remains in the bark over winter, only dropping into the water the following spring. There they finish developing, and within in a couple of months will emerge in their adult form.
The majority of dragonfly and damselfly species live only a few weeks or even days in their adult stage, and while there are still willow emeralds to be seen in the garden at present, it will only be a couple of weeks before they are finished for the season. However, come next year, when the warm weather returns and the garden fills with colours once again, pull your attention away from the flowers and to the sky above, and you just may spot of one of these striking creatures.
Why not take advantage of the early autumn weather and visit us in the Flatford Wildlife Garden? We’re open 10.30am to 4.30pm in October, and during the half-term week will be hosting a range of children’s activities in the garden.
Envision me grinning from ear to ear, reader, if you please. You see, yesterday at the prestigious annual Biffa Awards Ceremony, our lovely wildlife garden project was awarded first prize in the Recreation Category. I had been pleased enough to be nominated, and had not expected to win against some very worthy competition, so imagine my delight when the category Judge, Nathan Williams of the Ingleby Foundation, announced Flatford as the winner!
I managed to gather my wits enough to say a few pertinent words in thanks, and my parting shot was something like “The RSPB would not be able to carry out worthwhile projects like this without the support of organizations such as Biffa Award, who have the foresight to GIVE SOMETHING BACK….” They funded a large portion of the original garden build, you see.
So, back to normality today – I arrived to a beautiful autumn scene this morning, all bright golden leaves in the slanting morning sun. Despite the advancing autumn, we still have a fair bit of colour in the garden, the hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma wilmottianum) is still blooming prettily, and in fact the week before last we had a hummingbird hawkmoth regularly drinking from the bright blue flowers… They always make me do a massive-double take: their steady hover and loud humming flight are incredibly suggestive of a hummingbird!
We are also regularly seeing a particularly graceful guest – willow emerald damselflies…. These intriguing bronze-green damsels are a recent colonist from the continent. A few years ago, a single sighting would have had the amateur entomological world very excited, but now they seem to be colonizing exceptionally well, and a warm day a week ago had several all hawking for insects from a suitable vantage point. They are lovely to watch, all graceful lines and swooping flight.
(A quick word from Becky, a new volunteer)
I've just got back from spending some time in the RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden, re-acquainting myself with some ancient and unconscious knowledge and soaking as much new detail as I could. I say ancient because I think that deep down in our bones we know that we have a responsibility to look after all life - and unconscious, because I'm not quite sure exactly what it was that took me to Flatford one free day (a few months ago) in the first place. Whatever it was, I found myself ringing Shirley, the garden's project officer earlier this week and off I went this morning to join the weekly volunteer work day (Thursday), meeting up with the friendly bunch of regulars, some of whom have contributed to the health and vitality of this young garden since it was first planted in early 2011.
As all tended spaces are this garden is a work in progress, with a clear and strong purpose as well as a calm and peaceful energy. As I got on with my first job of painting the back gate behind the new information barn, I could hear laughing and joking, and 'Wows' and 'Ooooohs' from the steady stream of visitors. I'd turn round occasionally to be greeted with smiles and questions, and the occasional beam of sunlight - a near windless day made this sheltered area of the Dedham Vale feel quite mild.
We stopped for tea mid-morning (there's a kettle in the barn) and a packed lunch a little later - I was still painting...happily. I'm not the speediest handyperson in the world but I'm quite careful (mmmmm maybe I'll get those old paints out later - a bit of unconscious creative cross-pollination going on here). After lunch I helped plant some Foxgloves and Evening Primrose plants - the idea was to fill up some spaces without getting too close to the bulbs, also keeping in mind what will be flowering when and how high they'll be - quite alot to consider actually. It was wonderful to be working with some very experienced people - there's nothing like learning on the job. What they do here, and try and encourage everyone to do in their gardens, is to plant for early and late nectar and pollen, that's top tip number one! Click here for more: http://www.rspb.org.uk/advice/gardening/
Having spent just a few hours in the company of the birds and the bees, the humans and the essential creepy crawlies (leave those woodpiles please - they're vital!), I bid my goodbyes to the little team and set off on the public footpath back to Manningtree, very much looking forward to next week. In the meantime I'll be giving Dick, the volunteer coordinator a ring to get my first shift on the garden 'meet and greet' rota and I'll be looking up and trying to remember some of the plants, flowers and birds that I learnt today.
Do come and visit soon if you're in the area - it would be lovely to see you!