The following is a genuine experience I had earlier this week. I was busy in the garden, minding my own business, when I heard a woman's voice, loud and clear, the other side of the hedge.
"Aren't they big and lovely?!" she said.
"Huge!" said a man's voice.
"It's because they're in a sunny position."
Ah. Now I twigged. They were talking about my sunflowers!
I've got so much to do to sort out my new garden that the sunflowers were a way of doing something quick and simple in a bare border alongside the garage. The hope was to provide nectar and pollen for bumblebees, and then homegrown food for birds (to complement my cornfield plot at the other end of the garden).
The bumblebees are indeed loving them, and it is nice to see that passers-by are getting pleasure from them, too.
And talking of overheard conversations, the very next day, a mother and her two small children were admiring the Red Admiral butterfly nectaring on the buddleia in my front hedge. "See!" said the mother, "We'd get lots of lovely butterflies and bumblebees if you stopped picking our flowers all the time."
"Hooraayyyyyyyyy," said the little girl excitedly at the prospect.
As David Attenborough said to Barrack Obama (and I paraphrase), the mystery is not how people come to be interested in wildlife; it's how they lose it. Well, that family hadn't lost it, and that is so encouraging to hear
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.
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.