Gardening for wildlife

Homes for Wildlife

Homes for Wildlife
If you love the creatures in your garden, you'll love our Homes for Wildlife project. This is the place to ask and answer questions about making your backyard wildlife-friendly.

Gardening for wildlife

Follow the adventures of Adrian Thomas, our wildlife gardening expert, and be inspired to create your own wildlife haven on your doorstep. Adrian posts here every Monday and Friday without fail, so make it a date and drop by!
  • Back in the garden boudoir, part II

    Back in May, I revealed my garden boudoir, the place where the birds come to wash and brush up and make themselves beautiful. We don't admit that it is made out of an upturned dustbin lid because the birds think it is a bijou washroom.

    Only a couple of metres away is something that has become another hit with those birds wanting to look their best. Let's call it The Powder Room, but between you and me it's just a pile of dusty soil in a sheltered and sunny spot.

    Here is one of the visitors yesterday, having a whale of a time, thrashing about in the dust.

    It's of course a Wren, and the activity is known as 'dust bathing' or, more correctly, 'dusting'.

    Dusting is where a bird flicks and wallows about in dry, dusty soil, getting the powder deep into its plumage. It is typically a behaviour of desert birds, but in UK gardens the birds you are most likely to see dusting are House Sparrows.

    It is all thought to be to do with plumage care, the dust helping to clean the feathers of any dry skin, grime and even parasites. Just look at how much this Wren is enjoying it - it feels SO good!

    I often talk about filling a garden with greenery to help wildlife, but it just shows that some bare soil has its place too, and it will also be used by some mining bees and sunbathing butterflies.

    So help wildlife today the easy way by growing nothing in part of your garden. Your Wrens and Sparrows will love you for it.

  • Screaming pleasures

    Let’s start with a photo of a garden bird…or at least it is if you’re a warden or lighthouse keeper on a remote island!

    Yes, I’ve been on my holidays, following the yearning to go and see Puffins and Gannets and all the other wonderful wildlife of Northumberland and Lothian (my Gannet above was on Bass Rock).

    But right up there in the list of experiences (for which I admit a touching-distance rendezvous with Puffins is hard to beat) was the fact that the cottage I was staying in had breeding Swifts. With fewer and fewer nestsites available to them in gaps in soffits and eaves, there is real concern about their numbers in Britain.

    My rented cottage clearly had what they needed, however, as every morning, every evening and at intervals throughout the day, small groups of adults would come in, presumably with a saliva-soaked ball of insects in their throat to feed to their chicks. It was a chance for me to try out some ‘Swifts in flight’ photos. This was as good as they got!

    In they’d come in a low-level approach, reducing their wingbeats to a stiff flutter, sometimes looping right around the house and screaming in excitement.

    I say ‘excitement’, but we still aren’t absolutely sure why they should scream. The best bet is that it is all about social cohesion – Swifts do like to nest and travel in little groups and maybe it is a way of getting to know each other and bond.

    What we do know is that Swifts are very loyal to their partner and to their nest site, and the same pair can return year after year to the same site. After their brief, three-month sojourn in the UK for breeding, they head off to Africa, and it is thought that pairs don’t try to stay together for those nine months away, so you can sense why they have such delight, all pumped up with breeding and parental instincts, when they do arrive here.

    That time to leave is now upon us – few Swifts will be left in the UK by the end of the first week of August. So enjoy them while you can, and do think about whether you have a suitable site for a nestbox for next year. All the instructions are here.

    I’ve put my box up, and it is now a waiting game. There is no guarantee of success, but with the Swift populations in peril, it is definitely worth a try.

  • The glories of the cornfield

    Last week I mentioned that my bats were enjoying circling over my cornfield wildflower glade, so I thought it was nigh time to show you how the glade is looking.

    It was rotavated and sown in February on an area that had been under a dense thicket of half-dead apple trees and damson and plum suckers. I figured it had been so dark under there for years that it was worth just going for it without waiting to see if there was a terrible weed problem waiting in the soil. Here's how it looked back then.

    My hunch proved a good one, as the only weeds to germinate in any numbers proved to be Swine’s-cress and Common Cudweed, both small and easy to ignore.

    A quick reminder that an area of cornfield wildflowers is not a meadow. Meadows are perennial mixtures containing fine grasses on poor soils that don’t need annual cultivation, whereas a cornfield mix is a range of annual flowers that can be grown on richer soils and where the soil is cultivated each year.

    I sowed a mix at a rate of about 2 grams per square metre with seeds of Cornflower, Corncockle, Corn Chamomile, Corn Marigold, Field Poppy and Opium Poppy, and augmented it with about 2 grams per square metre of a mix of wheat, barley and oats to get the true cornfield effect.

    Boy, it took time to get going! Each day I’d wander through it watching for the signs of germination and willing the little seedlings to grow, grow, grow. I even had moments when I doubted it would ever come to anything.

    There was a point in about late May when the seedlings seemed to knit together into a green carpet. And then the Corn Chamomile threw up thousands of flower buds. But they too appeared to stall, tantalising me.

    Finally, in mid June, it all came good. Out came the thousands of daisy-like Chamomile flowers, soon interspersed with the pure sunshine of Marigolds...

    ...and then the electric blue of the Cornflowers.

    And you can see wildlife has started to arrive, with a female Common Blue butterfly above, plus bumblebees, hoverflies, and damselflies coming into the massed flowers to hunt the flies.

    Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Robins are enjoying raiding the ground beneath, and I'm hoping finches and House Sparrows will then come to the developing seedheads of the cereals. We'll see - but for now it is just a matter of enjoying the spectacle.