Formby Red Squirrels

As it’s Red Squirrel Awareness Week, it struck me that now would be a very appropriate time to talk about one of my favourite places to visit further afield, especially during the Autumn and Winter months – National Trust Formby. It’s become such a favourite place to visit that at least one or two mornings spent in the reserve watching and photographing the resident Red Squirrels has now become a firm tradition over the Christmas and New Year holidays!

The reserve consists of pine woods leading out onto the beach. It’s a very special place because it’s one of the few spots in the North West where Red Squirrels can still be found. The Red Squirrel is the UK’s only native Squirrel species. They were widespread across most of the country until the 1870’s – when the non-native Grey Squirrel was introduced from America. Quickly, the larger Grey Squirrel started to out-compete the Red Squirrel for both food and habitat. And with them, they brought the Squirrelpox Virus, which they have developed immunity to but which is lethal to Red Squirrels.

Red Squirrels are very susceptible to environmental changes – if they feel stressed, they will not breed. And of course, they struggled too due to the ever present reduction of available territory as woodlands are lost to development. These factors combined mean that Red Squirrel numbers in the UK have fallen from an estimated 3.5 million at their peak, to just 160,000 individuals now – with as few of 15,000 of these being in England.

So Formby’s Red Squirrels are incredibly precious. In 2007 tragedy struck the reserve when there was a bad outbreak of Squirrelpox immediately followed by an unseasonably harsh Winter – the National Trust estimated that these two events combined led to the loss of 85% of the Red Squirrel population at Formby. It’s recovering now, and although numbers are still not back to their pre-Squirrelpox numbers there are still plenty to see, especially if you visit the reserve at the right time of day. There is still the odd isolated case of Squirrelpox on the reserve, and for that reason Grey Squirrels are strictly controlled in and around the reserve.

The squirrels are most active in the early mornings and evenings, so during the Winter months when I visit the most often I time my visit to arrive when the reserve opens. Not only does this give you a greater chance at getting a parking space (the reserve is incredibly popular and the car park is often full by mid-morning) but it also coincides nicely with the rangers feeding the squirrels, so there are always lots out and about seeking breakfast. During the middle of the day the squirrels retreat into the trees and their dreys – if you want to see them there’s no chance of a lie in, the earlier really is the better.

There’s a network of paths around the reserve, with the body of the woodlands behind fencing to allow the squirrels to remain undisturbed by people and dogs. Squirrels being squirrels though they pay no mind to the fences and frequently venture close to or onto the paths – a zoo-like experience this is not. Being woodland the light levels are quite low, but on a crisp and bright Winter’s day the light is good enough for photography.

In Winter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Red Squirrels have been misnamed – they grow a thick Winter coat and the colour of this can vary enormously, from red to grey and every shade in between. They also grow their distinctive ear tufts which moult during the Summer and grow back during the Winter.

The squirrels do look strikingly different in the Summer, they’ve lost their ear tufts and their lighter Summer coats are a really vivid shade of orange. I’ve found there are fewer to be seen during the Summer months though, as with the longer days by the time the reserve opens they’ve mostly retreated into the trees.

After a couple of hours exploring the reserve I tend to leave in late-morning, as the reserve gets busier and the squirrels head for the treetops. It really is a wonderful place to visit.

Autumn Arrives

It feels like five minutes ago that we were baking in the never ending heat and dryness of the Summer, and wishing for rain. Then, as meteorological Autumn arrived on the 1st of September, Summer seemed to heed the calendar, ending abruptly and the Autumn weather arrived with a bang. We’ve so far had two named storms and a 48 hour stretch of rain. Following the rain, the lawn seems studded with orange. It’s going to be a good Autumn for fungi, if this year’s crop of Deceivers is anything to go by. I’m hoping that their cousin, the Amethyst Deceiver will put in an appearance under the hedge this year as it does from time to time.

20180922_085127.jpg

After a fairly quiet and uneventful few weeks in terms of garden wildlife, this too has started to return. I was chuffed to see my favourite fluff-tastic flying lollipops, the Long-Tailed Tits arrive in the garden for the first time since the unseasonal snowy spell back in March. There seems to be a group of four or five of them that have teamed up with a couple of Blue Tits. It’s only having seen a Long-Tailed Tit feeding next to a teeny Blue Tit that I’ve really begun to appreciate just how small they actually are.

I’ve been keen to get some close up shots of Long-Tailed Tits since they started visiting the garden, so I was pleased that they’ve started to investigate the feeder nearest to the house, which allowed me to take photos of them through the kitchen window. They seem VERY interested in the kibbled peanuts on offer here.

This is the earliest that the Long-Tailed Tits have arrived in the garden – they normally turn up once Winter has properly set in. Do they know something that we don’t, I wonder – are we in for as cold a Winter as we had warm a Summer? I’m now just waiting for the Bullfinches to come back to the garden and then all our normal Winter visitors will be present and correct.

I’ve continued putting hedgehog food out nightly, but sadly no takers. Of the prickly variety, anyway. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that the bowl had started seemingly emptying itself overnight, so I set up a trailcam and soon the culprit was revealed – our Field Mouse!

Up until now he’s completely ignored the hedgehog food, so I think the colder weather has urged him to feed up and lay down some fat reserves ready for Winter. I felt bad for him, so started placing a hazelnut or two in the entrance of the feeder every few nights. These seem to be going down a treat! He often picks these up and runs off with them, probably to cache as part of his Winter store cupboard, but sometimes he can’t seem to resist and eats them on the spot!

I hope this is somewhat closer to his natural diet than the hedgehog food. I’m still really hoping a hedgehog finds its way to us this year – I’d love to have them around regularly.

Badger Watching

Stumbling across an uneven, tussocky field after dark, clutching my camera and a bean bag leaving no spare hands for a torch is not my usual way to spend a Wednesday evening, but this was not a normal Wednesday. I’d finally seen an animal that I’d wanted to for the longest time – the badger.

I’d only ever seen a badger once before, lying lifeless by the side of a very busy dual carriageway. They aren’t very common in my neck of the woods – it’s massively overdeveloped and also our soil is distinctly clay-like, prone to holding water and not, I’d imagine, easy to excavate into smug, dry tunnels. I don’t blame the badgers for steering clear.

As a result I’d always been curious about these nocturnal creatures with their black and white mint humbug faces. I realised that I didn’t even know how big a badger was. The size of a cat? A dog? I imagined them emerging in the wee small hours well after dark, a glimpse of those white stripes and a dark silhouette being the best sighting a person could hope for of this mysterious animal.

So when I was offered the chance to spend an evening at an active badger sett, I leapt at the chance. Better still I learned that badgers usually emerge a while before dusk, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Which is why I found myself en route to the Peak District, having taken the afternoon off work. Driving through the fabulously named village of Sparrowpit, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. Nature is unpredictable, and there was no guarantee that the badgers would actually show themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of hours that I’ve spent sitting in the garden with my camera waiting for my usually regular as clockwork visitors to arrive, only for them to appear is if from nowhere the minute I’ve given up and gone back inside. It’s almost equal to the amount of times I’ve tried to photograph a new species and only managed to grab a blurry picture of a rapidly retreating animal rear end.

Walking towards the sett, my companion pointed out the badger pathways that were crisscrossing the field. I’d have mistaken these for human trails, but the grass was compressed evenly – a trademark pointer to badger, rather than human or fox activity as it shows where it’s low slung undercarriage has passed over.

As we got closer, we fell into silence. Living a primarily underground existence, badgers don’t see too well (they don’t need to), but their sense of hearing is excellent. As we settled down downwind of the sett – their sense of smell is excellent too – I tried to get comfortable, anticipating a long wait ahead. Predictably, at that moment the heavens opened – not for rain, but hail! After so many weeks of unrelenting heat it was actually nice to be outside in the cool evening air, hearing the (thankfully) miniature hailstones bouncing off my hood. The hail passed over within minutes, just as the opening act appeared – this cheeky rabbit who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence.

I managed to get a few shots before the rabbit suddenly seemed to go onto the alert. Glancing past it, I understood why. A badger had emerged and was snuffling around the ground outside the sett. It was still very light at this point – being about 6.30 in the evening, giving me the chance to get a few shots. Then, just for a second, the sun poked through the clouds giving me the chance to get this shot which I am really pleased with.

The badger continued to snuffle around the base of the bracken, until the cows that were further across the field wandered closer to us to graze. The cows had kept an eye on us since we’d entered the field, and us on them. Though they sounded really close to us, they were a good 50m away.

The badger though, retreated to the sett and resolutely refused to come back up when they were within earshot. I’d been advised to bring a book along in case of boredom while waiting, but there was little chance of that. There was the odd light shower of cooling rain, and a constant buzz as a steady stream of bumblebees motored purposefully overhead. Remarkably, there seemed to be a bumblebee nest in the bracken to one side of us, we were most definitely on a flight path back to the nest. I was amazed by this – badgers are well known for digging up and devouring bumblebee nests – bees, wax and all, so it’s astonishing that one was thriving so close to a sett.

Gradually the cows moved away and first the rabbit, then the badger re-emerged. There was one moment when the badger seemed to look straight down my camera lens, a pose that would have made a wonderful photo, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter and break the spell. I must learn not to be so hesitant!

Then, as dusk became darkness proper, two smaller badgers came out from the sett entrance – this year’s cubs! After enjoying a noisy drink they started snuffling around in the bracken on either side of us. By this time, sadly, it was too dark to be able to take any pictures – but the sight of a small nose emerging from the bracken a mere metre away from me was incredible, and a moment I will never forget.

While the cubs busied themselves in the undergrowth we took the opportunity to slip away. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m hoping to be able to return to the sett next spring when there’s the chance of small cubs and longer hours of daylight. If you ever get the chance to visit a sett, I’d highly recommend it.

Our first Garden Owl!

I’ve thought for a while that there may be owls around in our local area – where we live was planned as a ‘Garden Village’ after the war, and so we’re lucky enough to have small parks and open spaces at the end of most of the streets. These contain a lot of tall trees ideal for roosting and watching the activities (and potential prey) in the gardens below. I’d heard a Tawny Owl call from somewhere behind the house a couple of times in the middle of the night, but I’d never actually seen one around.

So I was thrilled to see a shape drop out of the sky at dusk the other evening, and alight on our next door neighbours roof. I was just thinking that the Woodpigeon was out late, and then it turned it’s head enough for me to see it’s silhouette – an owl!

It perched for a few minutes, from the movements of it’s head I suspect eating an evening snack. When finished, it flexed it’s wings a few times before flying off into the night. I so hope it comes back! I’m guessing it was a Tawny Owl, as it’s the species that makes most sense from the perspective of the habitat in our area.

I’d love to get a better look at it – I’ve only seen a Tawny Owl close up during a photography session at a Birds of Prey centre near me, from which the photos on this post are taken. I’m wondering if I rigged a trail cam to point upwards, whether that would work. Even if not, I’m just thrilled to have confirmation that we have them in the area, and that they are coming so close to the garden.

A Hard Time for Honeybees – and our Wild Bees too

For the first time since we began beekeeping 8 years ago, our Honeybees are showing signs of starvation. At the beginning of July we noticed that they’d begun removing the wax cappings from their Winter honey stores and begun to eat them. Each frame we removed during inspections saw lines of hungry bees head first in the cells, totally ignoring our presence as they ate.

Kersal Vale Honeybees, 2015

Normally at this time of year they’d be busy foraging for pollen and nectar, but they seem to have realised that there’s just not enough about. The effect can be seen on other invertebrates too – each time we open a hive flocks of Bumblebees and Wasps have started appearing too, attracted by the sweet scent of the honey within. Wasps do appear around beehives and try to rob them of honey, but normally this will only happen in early Autumn when flowering plants naturally begin to die back. Bumblebees are normally far too busy with their own bee business to bother beehives, but this year with the lack of food around it seems the smell must be irresistible.

Kersal Vale Honeybee, 2015

Our bees are sited on a large allotment site, where as you can imagine there’s normally a consistent food supply throughout the bee season. The allotmenteers grow a wide variety of plants and so at any point during the season there’s generally something in bloom – but it just doesn’t seem to be enough this year. The flowers seem to be dying back incredibly quickly in the heat and the lack of rain means plants in general are struggling. The apiary itself backs onto the River Irwell, the banks of which at this time of year are normally thick with Himalayan Balsam. This is an invasive species which needs careful management if it isn’t to become a real problem – it spreads like wildfire and outcompetes many native species – but has become an important and reliable food source for insects. It has very shallow roots though, so was an early casualty of the drought. The riverbanks are empty this year.

This means we’re in the unusual position of needing to supplement our bees’ food during the height of Summer. We’ve a few options to use – adding wet supers, frames from which the bulk of the honey has been extracted but which always have some remaining deep in the cells. We’ve also got a couple of buckets of honey which has slightly too high a water content to bottle, so they can have that too. And finally we can feed them with sugar solution, though this is the last option as being essentially pure sugar it isn’t as nutritionally balanced as honey.

Other than feeding we are leaving the bees alone as much as possible – we don’t want to put any unnecessary stress on the colonies. The bees seem to have adopted a low stress, low energy approach to life too, only doing what’s absolutely necessary. For example, there hasn’t been any attempt to swarm like there normally would be when the hot weather began.

Kersal Vale Honeybee covered in Himalayan Balsam pollen, offering her hivemates a taste of the nectar she’s gathered to encourage them to visit the source

So an odd Summer in beekeeping as in the rest of the natural world. And another odd feature to mention – this phenomenon seems to be incredibly localised. Beekeepers in our area are reporting similar issues to ours, but in other parts of the country bees are absolutely booming.

All this being said, I’m not too worried about our honeybees. My main worry is that what this signifies for our local native bees. Our colonies of honeybees will be fine, hopefully – we can feed them. The Solitary and Bumblebees in the area are not so lucky, and not long after noticing what was happening with the honeybees, I started to see problems with them too. We seem to be seeing a much shortened season for them compared to normal – last year I had Leafcutter Bees flying in the garden until September. This year, they emerged at the same point in the Summer but are already gone. At NQ Growboxes, there are far fewer bees than at this point last year. The common issue in all these places is the scorching temperatures and lack of food sources available for the bees.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have had on the local populations of wild bees. I’m hoping that, although the season is shortened this year, they will have had time to complete the breeding cycle. As always with these things though, only time will tell.

Rainy Days and Communal Roosting at NQ Growboxes

I’ve mentioned before a particular nail hole in the fencing at the end of box number 9 at NQ Growboxes. It’s the one where I found the Blue Mason Bee hiding a couple of weeks ago. It’s very popular with bees – I’ve seen them using it as a roosting spot on days when it’s cold or rainy, and I’d guess that it’s used at night too.

This year though, I’ve noticed something curious. I’ve been frequently finding bees of different species occupying the hole quite happily together.

Common Yellow Face (Hylaeus communis) and Large Yellow Face (Hylaeus signatus) Bees sharing the nail hole

Communal roosting is a widely known phenomenon in the natural world, especially in birds. Roosting together provides safety in numbers – innate protection from predators, as well as increased warmth. It’s thought that there are social benefits too – with the younger members of the roost learning skills from the older more experienced members. The older members in turn benefit from being able to choose the prime spots in the middle of the roost.

Common Yellow Face and Hairy Yellow Face (Hylaeus hyalinatus) Bees sharing the nail hole

I don’t know whether anything like this is happening here, but if I had to venture a guess I’d say it was the warmth and shelter that’s pulling these bees in and encouraging them to share the space. They are definitely aware of each other and certainly don’t seem to mind each other’s company. I wonder if the fact they are both males has a bearing on this too – while they forage on similar food sources, they won’t be competing for nesting space and so maybe are more naturally tolerant of each other?

I also found another popular roosting spot in a crack in the top of the fence. On one dull day, I found three Hairy-Faced Yellow Face Bees (Hylaeus hyalinatus) piled in together having a snooze. For some reason, I still find it really comical that bees sleep on their backs. I can’t understand how their wings don’t get in the way!

On another day I found a single bee sheltering here during a rainstorm. If you look closely, you can see a raindrop on his eye!

I always used to dislike rainy, dull days. I rely mostly on natural light for my photography so on days like this it’s hard to get a good photo. However this year I’ve changed my mind somewhat – the bees stay much stiller in cooler conditions, and having worked out the places that they go to wait out the bad weather has made for some really interesting photo opportunities!

NQ Growboxes Round-Up – Late June & July 2018

Late June brought very warm temperatures and a distinct lack of rain. The wildflowers were starting to look a touch wilted, but still attracted loads of bees, like this Hylaeus (Yellow Faced Bee) who clearly takes her common name very literally.

The first Cinnabar Moths were flitting around the site. Soon, hopefully, we’ll see their bright yellow and black caterpillars feeding on the Ragwort around the site.

I found this fluorescent spider on one of the Ox-eye Daisies. It’s a Green Orb Weaver, and is a common UK species though this is the first one I’ve seen. Despite it’s vivid colour, it camouflages against vegetation incredibly well, I almost missed it completely as I scanned over the flower heads to check for bees.

On one dull day when I was sure there was nothing to be found, I saw a ladybird hatching! This is the first time I’ve seen this, and I was surprised to see this bright yellow, plain looking ladybird emerging. Reading up later, I discovered that all ladybirds hatch out with yellow wing casings and without their spots, which develop slowly and patchily over the next few hours, along with their final colour.

Later that week I found another ladybird going through this process.

I’ve been seeing plenty of birds at the Growboxes this year. This female Blackbird is around a lot, collecting worms for her chicks.

This poor Blue Tit looks KNACKERED.

I’m also pleased to be seeing more and more House Sparrows around the boxes this year, taking advantage of the rich pickings available.

As July began the scorching temperatures and distinct lack of rain continued. At NQ Growboxes, as with everywhere else, this meant a distinct lack of forage to be found. The wildflowers at the edge of the site have been particularly hard hit. I’m not sure whether t’s the lack of forage or a combination of different factors but, as in my own garden, this seems to be bringing the bee season to an early end this year. Compared to the same time last year there are far fewer bees around – last July the bee season was still in full swing, not so this year.

The upside to this is that you are pretty much guaranteed to see something interesting if you head to one of the flowers that IS still in bloom. I found this Leafcutter bee visiting each Borage flower in turn – Borage is a fantastic bee plant as it refills with nectar incredibly quickly after a pollinator visits it, and it was one of the most popular bee plants on the site in early July.

There were a few Ox-Eye Daisies and Asteracae left – these are normally occupied by female Colletes (Plasterer Bees) gathering pollen with which to provision their nest cells or just using them as a place to warm up on a dull day!

These bees are very common at the Growboxes at this time of year, so much so that I think their nesting site must be somewhere in the near vicinity. They are ground nesters and aren’t nesting in the boxes themselves, so I suspect they may be nesting somewhere in the adjacent car park. I must have a walk round one day to see if I can find them!

One insect that seems to be doing incredibly well in the heat is the butterfly. Large and Small Whites, Commas and Red Admirals are a common sight flitting around the boxes at the moment, usually in groups of several at a time. I was thrilled to find a species I’ve never seen before nectaring on one of the lavender bushes – a Large Skipper. The name is deceptive though – it’s a really tiny creature, so much so that I thought it was a moth at first. It was such a beautiful, iridescent shad of golden orange – it glittered in the sun. It was a rare butterfly too, in that it was happy for me to get right up close with the camera and just continued nonchalantly feeding.

My favourite Hylaeus (Yellow Faced) bees have all but gone now. There are just a few females to be found busily gathering provisions but nothing like the numbers there were a few weeks ago.

A new arrival though is this Blue Lasioglossum (Furrow) bee. These arrived late on in the season last year and may be another sign that the bee year has been accelerated somehow and is coming to an end.

I found this distinctive looking Shield Bug hiding in the lavender. Shield Bugs are a common sight in gardens, where they can be easily recognised by the distinctive shape that gives them their name. They are apparently also known as Stink Bugs because they emit a foul odour when they feel threatened – a theory I have not personally tested! Most of the Shield Bugs I see are in shades of green and brown, but this one was mainly pinky-purple with almost a checkerboard pattern of black and white round the site. This is the Hairy Shield Bug, Dolycoris baccarum, which is mainly found in the South of the country but is spreading Northwards as temperatures rise. There are only a handful of records for this species around Manchester so it’s another great find for NQ Growboxes!

As you pass through the Growboxes at the moment, you find your movements tracked by a strange, buzz-like ‘song’ coming from the sides of the boxes or the ground by your feet. You may see a small something spring across the path in front of you, or at the side out of the corner of your eye. These will be the Grasshoppers, who are all around the boxes at the moment. They seem to like to sit on the edge of the boxes sometimes, watching the world go by, and are fascinating when viewed up close. Pictured is the Common Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus on box 9.

So another month comes to a close. It’s been a very strange year for wildlife, and the bee season especially seeming to be coming to a premature end when it would normally still be in full swing. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the year unfolds.