In the past few weeks, as summer has finally got into its stride, I've had reason to visit various beer gardens. After a 'hard' day in the office, what's nicer than a beer garden with a glass of your favourite beverage and some good company?It just happens that beer gardens can be great for wildlife. Last week, on a cloudy evening, threatening to rain, we'd been out to watch some marsh harriers. The male harrier flapped in, with a small mammal or bird in his talons. As he approached, two young harriers flew up from the reedbed, begging to be fed with a piercing, high-pitched squeak. Father dropped the food, a youngster grabbed it mid-air with its feet and flew off. We were feeling pretty impressed with what we'd seen, so dropped in at a village pub on the way home for a pint and some nuts to celebrate. It was just warm enough to sit outside, so we took a picnic table. The cloud was low and grey, the air damp, and, though we could hear swifts screaming away, they were invisible! I scanned the skies... Swifts chase flying insects around, so low cloud and damp weather tend to bring them to lower altitudes. Still, no swifts to be seen... surely they were up there somewhere? No matter how hard I looked, all I could see was dense cloud about to drop a load of rain on me.After 10 minutes, a feeble rainbow emerged from the sky. As I admired it, there they were! Beneath the arc was a group of about 30 swifts, still screaming and hurtling through the air. So I didn't find gold at the end of the rainbow, but I did find some fabulous birds. It won't be too much longer before they're gone - swifts are among the last spring migrants to arrive and yet some of the first to leave for Africa. Their feet won't touch the ground until they're back here to breed next May. Enjoy them while they're here. You don't have to go anywhere special; a beer garden will do just fine...
What do you think?
I'll admit it - I've become a terrible bore. In the three weeks since the big hole in my garden was filled with water, I've been unable to stop talking about it. I'm besotted by my new pond and its contents.
Creating it wasn't easy. It took two days of hard labour by me and my mother in the hot sun. Our clay soil is heavy stuff and there was a lot of it after we'd dug the hole, which measures 3.5 m x 2.5 m x 0.75 m deep (about 11' 6" by 8' 3" by 2' 6").
By lunchtime on the second day, we'd lined the hole with underlay, then pond liner and were just about ready to fill it with water. Two hours later, it was full and I'd finished trimming the edges, but I was so exhausted I had to have a lie down on the grass!The payback for all the hard work started less than 24 hours later. I was relaxing by the 'pool' when I suddenly noticed movement on the water's surface. A pondskater was gliding about on the surface looking for bugs which had fallen in and got stuck in the surface tension. My pond had pondlife! That was just the beginning, too. Over the next two weeks, the pioneering pondskater was joined by more pondskaters, water beetles, water lice, ramshorn snails (which arrived with plants donated by kind colleagues) and hundreds of mosquito larvae. I'm not wild about mosquitoes, but I know our local bats will be. Plus, they don't call dragonflies and damselflies 'mosquito hawks' for nothing.Day 16 was a warm, sunny day and I sat next to the pond to watch what was going on. Within a few minutes, I was duly rewarded as a beautiful, forget-me-not-blue broad-bodied chaser dragonfly did battle with a four-spotted chaser. They whizzed low over the pond with the occasional buzz as they clashed wings, trying to see each other off. I'm not sure which was the winner...Over the weekend, I've enjoyed watching the latest visitors - delicate azure damselflies and bold common darter dragonflies laying their eggs into the water. Goldfinches have been bathing in the shallow end. I had to fish out a few beetles which weren't aquatic.
The broad-bodied chaser's been back, too - will it be his offspring climbing out of the pond sometime over the next three years? I'll have to wait and see...
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Insects come in a variety of sizes and colours, but sadly, I can't say that I ever really pay that much attention to the little guys of our ecosystem, although I often see the evidence that they have been around - the intricate patterns left in leaves and bits of foliage missing as they happily chomp through my garden.
So, armed with a camera and my Collins complete British insects book, I donned my flip-flops and went on an insect hunt in my garden, determined to look for these very important little creatures.
I already do quite a lot in my garden for wildlife, and within the first few minutes of being outside had already seen plenty of hoverflies, bees, and a small white butterfly, but I wanted to look a bit deeper and find those insects that wouldn't normally get noticed. Remembering how much Katie and I had found on just one tree I decided to take things slowly.
So slowly, in fact, that I also only got round to examining one tree, as within the first few minutes of looking I'd found two insects that I immediatley wanted to find out more information about: a common froghopper and a hazel weevil.
Froghopper - what a weird name, and quite frankly what an ever weirder looking minibeast. It took me a few minutes to find him in the book, but it turns out that we'd met before! As a nymph, these insects create frothy masses to live in and are commonly referred to as cuckoo-spit.
At only about 6mm long, this little guy was feeding on plant sap, and as I watched, every so often a squirt of yellowish fluid would shoot, regularly and often, out of its backside and land a few centimetres away on the leaf. I can only assume that it was expelling surplus plant sap.
I'm not sure how long I spent watching the froghopper, but as soon as I turned my head to see what else I could find I was immediately confronted by a hazel weevil. Moving closer to the leaf for a better view, the weevil started wondering around the leaf, before appearing to just 'let go' and roll off on to the ground. My book wasn't very helpful in explaining this behaviour, but I guess that I was seen as a threat and when I didn't move away the only thing left for the weevil to do was get off the leaf as quickly as possible.
I had great fun exploring my garden, and found the bug behaviour just as fascintating to watch as any of the birds that regularly visit my garden. I will definitely be doing this again; I might wear boots next time, though!
What can you do?