I gave a talk to the East Grinstead RSPB Local Group this week (about my day job setting up nature reserves), but as always found a little time to talk about gardening for wildlife too.
In the interval, a Mr and Mrs Bishop came up to me with a question about some insects that they'd seen in their garden behaving like Starlings, wondering what they were.
They knew that they weren't Winter Gnats, which I blogged about a few weeks ago here, the ones that bounce about loosely like marionettes.
No, these were a dense ball of insects, hanging in the wind off the tip of trees, pulsing and swirling like distant flocks of Starlings.
Immediately it reminded me of something I'd seen in April 2009 at Thorney in West Sussex - here's one of my photos from then:
A still photo doesn't do it justice, but it was as if this tree and several others in the area were smoking.
To my shame back then I didn't investigate it any further and put it down as 'just midges', presumably males doing a mating dance. But Mr and Mrs Bishop's question prompted me to do a bit more research.
My best guess is that both their and my smoking trees are Chronomids, the non-biting midges (rather than the little blighters you get in Scotland!). Their larvae are the little bloodworms you might see in muddy ponds. There are several species, but if anyone can shed more light, I'd be grateful.
Now Chironomids can be on the wing in any month, but I'm still surprised by Mr and Mrs Bishop's January date. But then again perhaps that is yet another signal of what an amazingly mild winter we have had down here. Until now! Have you see the forecast for the next week? Winter's a-coming!
Here it comes, the BIG one, Big Garden Birdwatch weekend - I hope you're all ready to take part.
And don't hold back if you think there aren't many birds coming into your garden this year - that is exactly the kind of information we want.
For me, one bird I think I'm guaranteed this year is a Dunnock. In past years, it has been far from certain whether one will appear during the hour count, but I'm confident this year because my Dunnock has learnt a new skill. 'He's' learnt to balance on the seed feeder!
Now this is a species for whom even a trip to a bird table is normally pushing their ingenuity - they're hard-wired to feed on the ground.
But I have pictures to prove it - here is my performing Dunnock!
As you can see, there's a problem! This trick is all still a bit new to him, and so far he has only learnt to go on the top perch on the rear side of the feeder!
He does come on the bird table too, but he's so nervous I had to grab this shot through the closed window:
But you can still see the fine, insect-eating bill, lead grey neck sides, and streaky crown that separate him from a female House Sparrow. Check out more RSPB Dunnock information here.
I hope you have plenty of your own stories to tell this weekend - happy counting!
A big, glossy seed catalogue from one of the big companies came thumping through my letter box this week, a timely reminder that the sowing season is only just around the corner.
On the one hand, seeing all the bright, colourful photos of flowers in full bloom is an exciting reminder of the glories of the season to come. But it was with my usual horror that I noted the plants that they were claiming were good for butterflies.
Of over 500 seed varieties on offer, this particular company claimed that 89 are "attractive to butterflies". I just don't know where they get their information from!
The plants they picked out on which I have never once seen a butterfly nectaring in all the years I've been researching this include Convolvulus major cultivars, Hollyhock, Ipomoea, Phacelia, Poached-egg Plant, various double sunflowers, and various Sweet Pea cultivars.
Now it is possible that very very occasionally a butterfly might land on one of these flowers and give it a try, but these are not flowers that they will habitually use.
And Schizanthus pinnatus is commonly known as the butterfly flower because they look like butterflies, not because they attract them!
Butterflies really are very restricted in terms of which flowers are the right shape for them to nectar on. So of all the flower seeds on offer in the catalogue I received, I personally would only recommend Lavender, Verbena bonariensis, and three flowers that they DON'T mark as being good for butterflies: Aubrieta, Coreopsis and single Dahlias (the photo I took last year of Small Tortoiseshell on Dahlia 'Dannevirke').
There are more flowers of course that are good for butterflies, such as Echinacea, Buddleia, Marjoram, scabiouses and knapweeds, heathers, Sedum spectabile, and Asters. But it just shows how careful you need to be when tempted by the catalogue blurbs.
One of the things I always like to claim about gardening for wildlife is that it doesn't have to be messy.
Standing next to part of my garden this week, I wondered where I was going wrong. What a dog's dinner!
Old stems of Teasels, Meadowsweet and Hemp Agrimony that I have left standing in case they contain any seeds, insects or insect eggs are all battered by the wind and rain. It looks like I just don't care!
I was heartened to remember a photo I took at a nationally renowned garden in late February last year, which I feel looks not too dissimilar:
And this scene of chaos is repeated across some of the best gardens in the country.
Phew! It seems that even professional gardeners can tolerate mess in winter.
So if you've got an area where you've purposely left seedheads and stems, but it's not looking too great, don't worry, and don't succumb to the temptation to tidy. You can leave it for the wildlife for the next few weeks, knowing that none of us expects perfection at this time of year!
With a morning free to spend in the garden this weekend, I decided to spend an hour doing some weeding. I don't know about you, but I find it quite therapeutic. And they do say that an hour weeding now saves nine later in the season.
And there is was one plant in particular I wanted to bring under control before it overran my hedge, and it's something I have the Romans to thank for - Alexanders.
It's a perennial, native to much of western Europe that was brought over here as a vegetable, and remained in cultivation for centuries until celery took its place. It has done that 'leaping over the garden wall' trick, however, and is now found around much of the English and Welsh coasts, and scattered widely inland.
I do grow it deliberately in my garden, but it self-seeds like crazy, and it germinates very early, so that soon these tell-tale seedlings begin to appear...
And if I'm not careful they very quickly begin to look like this...
And by April they are a dense stand of greenery, chest high.
But, as I say, I do let some of it grow to maturity because it is one of that most useful of groups of plants called the umbellifers - the carrot family. And the great heads - or umbels - of flowers on many species are often really valuable for smaller pollinating insects.
This was an Alexanders I photographed in flower in April, and you can see how good it is for spring insects. I believe the photo shows two different species of solitary bee, but I'll happily defer to the experts on that. It is also good for many species of fly.
Later in the season, other umbellifers such as the angelicas come into their own, but few flowers are as good in spring as this for short-tongued pollinators. And maybe you can try some Roman recipes with it too - it can't be any worse than celery (yuk!).