Out in the Garden

Like most people who are lucky enough to have one, I have been spending a lot of time in the garden recently. Our garden is almost exactly the average size of a UK garden, so a little larger than most people will have, but still not a large plot. It does allow space for all the elements with a flower border, vegetable plot, lawn and most importantly a pond and mini-meadow. The aim has always been to maximise the opportunities for wildlife within a more or less conventional garden space and I am really pleased that it was as there has enough wildlife to keep me interested throughout lockdown.

Although the garden is very short of trees and shrubs the variety and features such as the meadow seem very attractive to lots of birds, probably just because it offers home to a large number and wide variety of invertebrates, the main food of nestlings.

blackbird female

Blackbird female

As we have been sitting out a lot it is really noticeable how much more tame most of the birds have become, a feature not just of birds that use the feeder, they just seem to have got used to us being out there.

I took the chance to refurbish our pond, which had evidently sprung a leak, so it was relined and filled from the water butts. In no time it attracted eight smooth newt and several damselflies and even egg-laying broad-bodied chaser with an attendant male.

broad-bodied chaser male 4x3

broad-bodied chaser male

The mini-meadow, which with the area of the pond is in a 5m x 4m space is the main attraction for most wildlife. It was made by initially allowing the existing grass to grow and cutting and removing the vegetation once a year. I then added some seed and a few small plants that I grew from seed and over the last five years it has developed.

common vetch

common vetch – just one of the species that was already present 

A flowery meadow is, unsurprisingly very popular with butterflies, over the last few days I have seen my first small copper and common blue of the year in my garden, both species I think breed in the meadow.

common blue 4x3

My first common blue of 2020

small copper pair

Small copper pair

Lots of other insects live in the meadow, most obviously lots of ants, I now have a number of anthills dotted about the patch, you may have spotted a couple of ants in the common vetch picture above, probably collecting nectar from the base of the flowers. A range of true bugs are wandering about, mostly, but not all, vegetarians.

Rhopalus subrufus 4x3

Rhopalus subrufus – one of the many true bugs

There has been a lot in the media in recent times about bees and pollinators. You could be forgiven for thinking that pollination is dependent upon honey-bees, occasionally in very industrial scale agriculture this is almost true, but generally this is far from the case. In fact it turns out that more diverse environments have more pollinators and more different types of pollinators, we have a pollinator “problem” because we have impoverished our environment. I notice in my garden that having lots of different plants with differing flower types results in seeing lots of different types of insects and especially different species of bees.

ashy mining bee

ashy-mining bee

The ashy mining bee is one very distinctive species of spring-flying solitary mining bee which is increasingly visiting gardens. Pollination is carried out by almost all insects that visit flowers and even by other creatures like birds and small mammals. Recently the importance of moths has received some attention, as they fly at night their role is often forgotten. Hoverflies are more obvious and it is easy to see them visiting lots of flowers, often with a coating of pollen grains. I was interested to see a species I did not recognise recently int he garden and luckily got a picture that was good enough to identify the species. It turned out to be a recent colonist to this country with larvae that eat house-leeks, it may have got here under its own steam, but more likely was brought here as a result of the plant trade. It was first found in 2006 and now quite widespread across the southern part of the country.

Cheilosia caerulescens 4x3

Cheilosia caerulescens – the house leek hoverfly

 

Close to Home

Very, very close, in the garden in fact, but still full of wildlife. I saw three species of butterfly, with brimstone and peacock leading the way, but with my first comma in the garden this year as well. A pair of peacock were courting by the fast declining pond, it has a leak! I took some video, but unfortunately I cannot upload that here, but it may turn up elsewhere.

My mini-meadow is starting to look good, not much flowering, but a few things nearly there, but lots of seedlings coming up. The yellow rattle seedlings that first showed last week are coming up thick and fast.

yellow rattle 4x3

yellow rattle

I did not get on very well with the camera or in finding many ants, these were my main objective today, strange how there are lots about until you start looking for them!

Other firsts for the year included a very smart gorse shieldbug, one of the more brightly coloured species and it can be found on a lot more plants than just gorse.

gorse shieldbug 4x3

gorse shieldbug

As a fully paid-up member of The Self-isolating Bird Club (thankfully it is free), I also recorded any birds I could. You can follow the SIBC on Twitter @SIBirdClub, I recorded all the birds I could see and hear whilst having lunch in the garden, 30 minutes and I recorded 15 species, 2 lesser black-backed gull were unusual, but I suspect they were a pair from nearby as they flew up to harass 4 passing buzzard. I will try again tomorrow, although it sounds rather cooler, so I may need extra layers.

30 Days Wild – Day 12 – The Power of a Flower

Tuesday at Blashford is volunteer day, or at least one of them, we also have a regular work party on a Thursday as well, today we were balsam pulling. The balsam in question is Himalayan balsam, a garden plant that escaped into the countryside and particularly likes growing along river and stream banks, “riparian habitats” as they are known. It is an extraordinary plant, growing to two or three metres tall in a matter of a few weeks,outgrowing all native plants that live in similar places. It also has explosive seed pods which can throw the seeds a metre or more when they pop. Being a non-native it has escaped its natural disease and insect controls and grows almost without check, which is why it has become a problem.

before

a disappointingly large stand of balsam

We have been removing this plant by pulling them up for many years now and have made good progress on the upper parts of the Dockens Water, where there are very few plants now. Clearly though, we failed to find quiet a few plants last year for there to be quite such a dense stand as this. Flooding carries the seed along and will also concentrate it where the seed gets deposited. We had a lot of plants to pull up, but we did pull them up and this is what it looked like a short while later.

after

after balsam pulling

What is very clear is that once the balsam is gone there is very little other vegetation, showing how it out competes other species.

Himalayan balsam has very nectar rich flowers, leading some to claim it is “Good for bees”, bees and other insects will take nectar from it, but I think the case for it being “good for bees” is very questionable. When it flowers it is very popular, but before this it shades out all the other flowering plants that would providing nectar, so across the season it probably provides no more than would be there anyway, it makes the habitat one of feast or famine cutting off food sources earlier in the season.

Flowers are immensely rich sources of food for lots of creatures, perhaps especially insects, but I have watch deer carefully picking off flowers and leaving the rest of the plant. The flower has the protein-rich pollen and the sugar-rich nectar, in short the stuff needed to make animals and keep them running. The flowers are not giving this largess, they are trying to get their pollen transferred to another flower to allow seed formation and make new plants. As the year progresses different flowers become the main attraction for lots of insects. Just now hemlock water dropwort is very attractive, but a new draw is appearing in the form of bramble flowers.

bramble flowers

bramble flowers

We easily notice the larger species such as butterflies, but look closer and you will see lots of tiny insects.

bramble flower with pollen beetles

A bramble flower with several small beetles

I think the beetles in the picture are pollen beetles, but I am not certain.

Closely related to brambles, the roses are at their peak now, the similarity in flower form between the bramble and this dog rose are clear even if the rose is the showier.

dog rose

dog rose

I was pleased to receive reports of four little ringed plover chicks seen today from Tern hide, the first proof of any hatching so far this year. It was also good to see the common tern arriving at the rafts on Ivy Lake carrying small fish to feed newly hatched chicks.

My moth trap highlight today was a lobster moth caught at home, not a species I see very often and I still have to find the extraordinary caterpillar which is the source of the moth’s name.

lobster moth

lobster moth

To refer back to my earlier comments about the food value of flowers, I noticed the mullein moth caterpillar in my garden has eaten most of the flowers off the figwort plant, it has eaten all the best bits first!

mullein moth on figwort

mullein moth on figwort

What’s in My Meadow Today?

I know it is not a plant that belongs in a meadow in southern England, but I like bloody crane’s-bill, so I have it in the meadow, where it grows and seeds quite well.

bloody cranesbill

bloody crane’s-bill flower

Something else that does not really belong are the anthills, this is not because ants are not native here, but you do not usually get anthills in meadows. This is because a meadow is really a field that is grown to produce a crop of grass, so the act of cutting the field would knock down the anthills before they became large. I cut the grass around the anthills taking care to leave them to get bigger year by year as I rather like them. This maybe because I spent many years working at Farlington Marshes where the masses of anthills are a significant feature of the reserve.

anthill

One of the anthills being extended by the ants.

 

A Few Pictures

Not much to report today, but I will share a few pictures that I got during the day. First, at lunchtime I tried, largely without success to get a picture of the ants that are farming aphids on docks by the pond, this was my best of many, many attempts.

ant and aphids

ant and aphids

I was on the edge of the lichen heath for a short time and was impressed by the quantity of hairy bird’s foot trefoil there this year.

hairy bird's foot trefoil

hairy bird’s foot trefoil

Finally as I locked up the hides I found a grey-haired mining bee nectaring on hemlock water dropwort, usually a plant covered in insects but today mostly attracting bees.

grey-haired mining bee

grey-haired mining bee

I also spotted a very fine stand of foxglove and had to try a picture of them as well.

foxglove

foxglove