Early Spring at NQ Growboxes

I think it’s safe to say that last year at NQ Growboxes was a tough one. The plants and wildlife were thriving, but against increasing opposition from the human species of Manchester. The boxes were installed in 2011 and so were showing their age. This seemed to prove irresistible to drunken people leaving the nearby bars and clubs, and it seemed that after every weekend the boxes were a little more destroyed. The boxes were literally being pulled apart. The manager of a nearby apartment block tried to patch them up as much as possible but it felt like a losing battle. It was so sad and dispiriting to see such a wonderful place in such a sad state.In early March though, the boxes were repaired and a lot of rotten wood replaced. And they looked smashing! The old wood was piled up at the edge of the site which allowed any inhabitants that had made their homes in the wood to escape.

Though I’ve made an effort to get to the boxes at least once a week over Winter, my beewatch began in earnest in March. It was still quite cold so not many insects around but my visits did not go unrewarded. There are plenty of birds around at this time of year, including a lovely Blackbird pair who nest somewhere nearby each year. As city dwellers they seem to be quite used to people, so will come quite close to you if you stay quiet and still (or if they are distracted by the tasty treats on offer in the boxes).

There was also a beautiful Dunnock who seemed on a personal mission to soundtrack my March visits with his Very Best Song.

Slowly, invertebrates started to arrive. I was pleased to see this beautiful gold Honeysuckle Sawfly return, I saw one for the first time here last year. Sawflies are a strange one, they are often described as Stingless Wasps but though they look a bit like wasps or flies, they are neither. Their name comes from the female’s ovipositer (egg-laying apparatus) which unfolds like a jacknife and is used to saw into a plant stem to create a space for her to lay her eggs.

The ladybirds started to emerge too, including this one with a really interesting pattern. Normally this would be a sign that the adult ladybird had freshly hatched, and it’s shell was hardening and pattern developing. But it seemed way too early in the year for this, so I’m not sure what had happened here!

Finally, my first bee arrived. A beautiful queen Bombus terrestris (Buff-Tailed Bumblebee). One of the first bee species to start nesting each year, I found her warming up on a leaf at the edge of the boxes.

Another queen arrived a couple of days later and I found her snoozing on the edge of one of the boxes. Her eyes were really beautiful, they seemed to be dark blue with black patches in them. I’m not sure if it was a mutation of some kind, there are some solitary bees that have patterned eyes like this but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a bumblebee.

Quickly following the bumblebees, the first solitary bees of the year arrived! These were Andrena or Mining Bees, part of the UK’s biggest bee genus with 68 species found here. These arrive at the boxes each year and must nest somewhere nearby – although I keep my eye out every year I haven’t yet discovered where. They like to nest in light soil so I think they may nest at the edge of the carpark or on the canalside somewhere.The males emerge earlier than the females and first to arrive was this male Andrena bicolor (Gwynne’s Mining Bee), a seriously tiny bee covered in black hair.

There was also a male Andrena haemorrhoa (Orange Tailed Mining Bee) who sports an excellent golden moustache.

The males were quickly followed by the females who I usually found sunbathing on the rhubarb on chillier days.

I also found a female Smeathman’s Furrow Bee, Lasioglossum smeathmanellum. These tiny metallic bees are one of the longest flying bees at NQ Growboxes – they can be around from April right through to the end of the season. This might not be that surprising though as the growboxes is their ideal habitat – they love brownfield sites with plenty of wildflowers and composites. It’s rarer in the North of England than the South though so it’s another species we are lucky to have.

April ended with the emergence of the apple blossom which brought with it the Mason Bees! The first male Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) are attracted to apple blossom like a magnet, normally a rear end sticking out of a bloom is the best sighting you can hope for!

Also spotted were the first Blue Mason bee females, which is unusual. The males emerge first and so it’s unusual to see females this early. Like most bees they are often to be found warming up on the side of the boxes and the seat between boxes 5 and 6 is a popular sunbathing spot for a variety of bees.

All in all, a great start to the NQ Growboxes year!

Frogspawn!

While the garden has always had more than it’s fair share of frogs in all sizes, from mini to maxi, there’s always been one thing lacking in the Spring – Frogspawn!

Each year I’ve hoped to see a mound of jelly-like globules in the water, and every year so far I’ve been disappointed. I’ve always assumed that our frogs disappeared off to the ponds they were born in to spawn there and then return.

So it was with great excitement in March that I came home from work one day and found a small lump of spawn in the water! There then began a nerve wracking few weeks where I had my fingers, toes and everything crossed that the weather wouldn’t turn again and kill the spawn.

I took a few photos as the spawn developed over the weeks, it was really fascinating to see the black blobs turn into something reminiscent of a tadpole inside the egg.

I also bought a cheap, second-hand waterproof point and click camera to get an idea of what was going on under the surface. This was incredible to see, and good timing as just a few short days after I took these shots the tadpoles hatched!

At time of writing (July) our tadpoles still haven’t turned into frogs. They have become enormous however, so I don’t think it’s far off. They did seem to take a long time to develop even at the egg stage, and I think the weather had a lot to do with this. We’ve had some quite dramatic temperature fluctuations here in Spring and early Summer – at one point we had temperatures between 4 degrees and the early 20’s within the same week! I think this may have affected their development. I’m not too worried though and am looking forward to seeing the young frogs climb out of the pond for the first time later in the year

Hiatus

Looking back, I can’t believe my last entry here was in February!  Since then, family health issues and general life stuff have kept me away from this blog.

Typically, there has been loads going on in the garden and my other patches and keeping an eye on everything has kept me going through the tougher times.  I’m going to try to catch up with everything over the next few weeks so expect some fairly random posting about things that happened back in Spring, even though we are now well into Summer!

I’m glad to be back.

Has Spring Sprung?

It’s been unseasonably warm for the past week or so – reaching 20 degrees Celsius and a record Winter temperature for the UK yesterday.

As a result, there have been reports from across the country that wildlife is starting to exhibit some distinctly Spring-like behaviour, with early species of solitary bee starting to emerge, birds nesting and frogspawn appearing in ponds and rivers. I’ve seen a little bit of this in the garden – I put some nesting wool out on one of the bird feeders and within ten minutes or so a Blue Tit had appeared out of the hedge to grab some.

Even the Woodpigeon was enjoying the warmth, basking on the fence for most of the afternoon on Sunday.

I also saw my first Bumblebees of the year this weekend flying around in the garden. While doing some painting in the garage I was really pleased to see a Queen Tree Bumblebee climb into the Bumblebee nest box I set up last year. I waited with baited breath – would she decide to use it? She emerged after a couple of minutes and appeared to start doing orientation flights around the garden – doing short, circular flights and mapping out in her mind all the local landmarks to ensure she could navigate back to the box. I hoped this meant she saw it as a serious possibility for a home, and she made several more trips in and out of it all afternoon so I’ve got my fingers firmly crossed that she is able to establish a nest here.

I’m quite concerned about this weather though – it feels like we are having more and more unusual weather conditions each year across the planet, and I feel like this is a worrying sign of what is happening to the climate. Locally, I’m also concerned that we’ll have another cold snap which will kill off all the early-emerging creatures.

I did spend the weekend taking advantage of the fine weather though, spending some time out in the hide and photographing the garden birds. My new photography feeding platform is under construction and I’ll write about it once finished, but for now the birds are enjoying the old one.

I’ve had one of the trail cams out for the past week or so and was treated to footage of our first fox visitor since last Summer! I hope he becomes a regular!

I also heard a male Tawny Owl calling at the front of the house last week! We saw one on a neighbours roof last year, but since then there have been no more sightings. I’m very glad they are still around.

An Evening Performance

I got home from work last night just as dusk was falling, and for the first time in ages the garden was full of birdsong.

For a while now the Robin has been holding the fort as a solo artist, tonight he was joined by the Blackbird, Sparrows and Blue Tits for the Dusk Chorus.

I know there’s still the chance of some cold weather before Spring really starts, but the birds certainly think that it’s on its way…

Garden Photo Studio

Now that I’ve got my chair hide, I thought I would have a go at creating a small set up for bird photography in the garden (partly inspired by my visit to Burtonwood Nature Park, where they have the photography set-up of my dreams)!

I wanted to bait an area to encourage birds to come down and feed at eye level when I am sitting in the hide. Our bird table is far too high for this purpose, even though I use the hide on a raised patio near to the house. So I bought a 3 section feeder pole, thinking that I could then add or remove sections as necessary to adjust the height.

I wanted to fix some kind of platform to the top of it, and the bottom half of a mealworm feeder fixed to the threaded adaptor which came with the pole looked like it might work well. I tried to disguise the edges a bit with some sticks and ivy, stocked it with some tasty treats and left it out in the garden for a few days for the birds to get used to this new food source!

I’ve now had a couple of sessions using the platform and so far it’s working well! I’ve been delighted that the Coal Tits were the first to try it out and have been the most regular visitors so far. I fell in love with these fiesty little birds when they started visiting the garden three or four years ago, often accompanied by the Blue Tits. Unfortunately they are very shy and incredibly fast – I’ve never had much luck photographing them around the feeders as they grab a morsel of food and are gone in an instant. They usually retreat deep into the hedging to eat their prize, or cache it – they are one of the few birds that caches food in multiple places to see them through the harsh days of Winter. Though it looks like I will have more luck with the hide and feeding platform set up – this is only a start but I’m already over the moon with these images!

The Blue Tits have been following the example of the Coal Tits and are using the platform too –

And there’s even been a few visits from our male Blackbird –

Surprisingly, the Robin has taken a few days to start using the platform – I would have been willing to bet that he’d be one of the first! He’s making up for lost time though and is now becoming a regular visitor.

I’m now thinking of ways that I can improve the look of the platform. This feeder base is quite deep, ideally I’d like one a little shallower. I’m already looking at options to see how I can put something together more suitable and easier to make more natural looking. Watch this space!

I’ve also done some work to the chair hide. I’ve started using a gimbal head and tripod to cut down on how much I need to move once I’m inside the hide, as well as saving the load on my arms. I’ve also started to drape a scrim net over the gap left open for my camera, to hide me even more. I think it’s worked, too – the birds seem much more confident in coming close and the Robin has even started landing on top of the hide on occasion!

I’m really happy with the way this experiment is turning out – I’m loving being able to get such close up photos of the feathered visitors to our garden!