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!
  • Watch out for the Acorn Hoarder

    If there is one bird for me that is synonymous with October, it is the one the French call the ‘Geai of the oaks’, the Dutch the ‘Gaai’, and the Germans the ‘Eichelhaher’ – the Oak Jay.

    The names Geai, Gaai and our name, Jay, are all onomatopoeic, derived from the same source – the harsh, rasping call.

    At this time of year, every journey you go on you seem to see them. In ones and twos, sometimes more, they flap languidly but purposely on their butterfly wings, ranging over towns and villages, woods and fields. And it is all in search of acorns.

    There are, of course, way too many acorns to be eaten right now, so it is time for the Jays to collect and stash them.

    It has been calculated that one Jay will collect in the region of 5000 acorns in autumn, working 10 hours a day to do so, and flying 100 miles a day, backwards and forwards, to suitable clearings and woodland edges where they can bury them just under the earth. Those caches include my garden, as I disturbed a Jay only last weekend ramming a gullet load of acorns into my vegetable patch!

    This was one doing just the same at Anglesey Abbey which I visited last week.

    ...And a second photo to show it didn't fall down its own acorn hole

    So keep your eyes peeled right now for one of our most glamorous birds. By the winter, most will have melted back into the woodlands from whence they came to secretly live out the rest of the year, making the odd foray back out to try and find where they left those 5000 acorns!

  • Sparrows in Paradise

    Regular readers, please excuse my bad case of AWOL-ishness as I disappeared for two weeks. Yes, I went away sunning myself, and here I am freshly tanned thanks to the sun, wind and rain of what for me counts as the tropics - the Isles of Scilly.

    Have you been? The place is simply glorious. Here for example are the Eastern Isles last week - I might as well have been in the Caribbean!

    The islands are famed for their mild climate, where snows and frost are almost unheard of. It allows plants to grow in gardens that you can only dream of elsewhere in the UK, and the subtropical gardens on Tresco are a treasure-trove of flowers from across the globe.

    There's something about Scilly that also seems to work wonders for House Sparrows. You see them everywhere: in gardens, in fields and farms, out on the maritime heaths, on the beaches.

    This was a flock of 28 waiting on a porch roof to come down to some seed on the ground. Well, it's a long time since I've seen a flock that large where I live, and there were some flocks I saw on Scilly that I think were closer to 100.

    You're probably well aware that the House Sparrow is one of those cause celebres, a species that we once took for granted but whose numbers plummeted. We lost an estimated 68% of our sparrows between 1977 and 2011; in other words, for every three sparrows there were, just one remains.

    We still don't know the reasons for sure, although changes in agriculture practice in rural areas and shortages of insects in urban areas are implicated. The good news is that the decline seems to have bottomed out, with signs of an increase in the west and north although it is still not translating into a nationwide bounceback.

    Big Garden Birdwatch in January will give us another massive snapshot of how well they are doing, to add to the figures collated in the BTO's Breeding Bird Survey.

    How are your sparrows doing? Can you beat a photo of 28?

  • Are you ready to go oding?

    Yes, in my mission to give you yet more words you can use in Scrabble, I give you ‘'oding'’. You might already have done it without realising it, for it means to go looking for dragonflies. Honest!

    Ok, so it is a term that hasn'’t quite caught on in the UK yet, but it will if I have anything to do with it, and I certainly have been enjoying oding around my new garden. Apparently, that makes me an 'oder'.

    In the past few weeks, one species has been particularly prominent – the Migrant Hawker,– and what a beauty it is. It is one of the biggies of the dragonfly world. When I say big, it is still only about 6cm long and weights about 0.5-0.75 grams, which means that about 15 would weigh the same as a pound coin.

    Here is a female, perched on one of my bamboo canes:

    And here is a male on an old apple tree.

    I thought it would help to point out some of the features that make it a Migrant Hawker. So, from a to e:

    a: Males have blue-tinged eyes

    b: Migrant Hawkers have a short yellow bar on their 'shoulder' - it is called an 'anti-humeral stripe'.

    c: The 'golf tee' shape just behind the wings is diagnostic.

    d: The abdomen is then patterned with pairs of spots all the way to the end - blue spots on mainly black in the mature male, small yellow spots on brown in the female.

    e: Migrant Hawkers have very long 'anal appendages'. You can tell male dragonflies from females by the appendages - males have three, females have two.

    It is a dragonfly that your grandparents wouldn'’t have seen in their gardens because it was just a rare visitor to Britain until about 1940, but it has since spread and prospered, such that it has now just about made it into Scotland and Ireland.

    Numbers here are boosted each year by influxes from the continent - isn'’t it amazing to think of these things migrating potentially hundreds of miles and crossing seas?

    One of the things I really like about Migrant Hawkers is that you can sometimes see several in action together because, unlike many dragonflies, they tolerate each other.

    My new garden already has two ponds and a stinking old swimming pool, but none are in a fit state for dragonflies to breed, so this is one of the things I intend to rectify this winter. My prediction is that I can increase the number of dragonflies and damselflies in my garden ten-fold - I'll let you know if my confidence is well placed in due course!

    So, go on, while the Indian summer is still with us, there's plenty of time to be an oder!