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!

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!

Big Garden Birdwatch 2019

Every year in January I take part in the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, the world’s largest wildlife survey. Now in it’s 40th year, the Big Garden Birdwatch was originally meant to be a one-off event run by the RSPB to get children more engaged in wildlife watching during the Winter months, and so that they could work out what the ten most common garden birds were. Expecting only a few hundred forms to be returned, the RSPB were astonished to receive 34,000 back through the post and so the Big Garden Birdwatch has since been an annual event, with adults able to join in since 2001.

I’ve taken part each year since we moved here, and it’s been a great way to see how more and more visitors have arrived as the years have gone on and I’ve made the garden more wildlife friendly. The first year I took part we’d only been in the house for 3 months, I was in the midst of working full time and studying and so I’d done little but put up a feeder. I think only a couple of birds made an appearance that year, but it’s increased every year since and now most years I’m able to count at least our regular visitors. Of course our more special visitors such as Siskins and Long Tailed Tits always become shy during the hour I’m counting and never make an appearance!

It does make me think though about the garden I remember as a child, and how things have changed. Our garden used to be full of Sparrows and Starlings. I rarely see a Starling here – though last year the parent Starlings seemed to bring their babies to the garden when teaching them how to forage for food themselves! I figured it was probably a safer environment for learning than the supermarket car park in our local town centre where they seem to live now.

So what did I see?

We’re lucky though in that we have a large flock of House Sparrows in and around the garden. They have seen massive declines since the Big Garden Birdwatch started so I feel lucky to have them, and they are such little characters that they are always a treat to watch. A project for this year is to get some nestboxes up to encourage them to nest here too!

Both male and female Blackbirds put in an appearance. There is also a youngster that appears from time to time – there were two fledglings this year but sadly one was taken by a cat.

After disappearing in late Autumn the Dunnocks have returned with a vengeance, and spend their days in the hedging and patrolling the base of the feeders for fallen seeds. Also known as Hedge Sparrows from a distance they seem like a drab brown bird, but close up they have incredibly beautiful eyes and I find the mix of grey and brown colouring very striking.

No bird watch is complete without the Robin – they are in and around the garden a lot of the time, and have been spotted investigating a Robin nest box I put up last Autumn, so I am quietly hopeful that they may choose to nest here. Their song always cheers me in the dark Winter months, and it always gives me a lift seeing the flash of red alight on a perch in the garden.

Blue Tits visited frequently through the hour – including one particularly noisy individual who seemed to be on a one-bird mission to be a complete noise nuisance, only stopping calling to grab a mouthful of food.

Along with the Blue Tits came the Coal Tits. We had three in the garden at once, which is a record and I’m so pleased! I’ve only recently managed to get some decent photos of these tiny birds, more on this in a later blog post!

And just on cue as the hour was up came the Bullfinches. I love seeing these birds – they’ve been a regular visitor for the last couple of years and only seem to disappear during the early nesting period in the Spring and again for a few weeks during late Autumn, when food is easily available elsewhere. They are reasonably uncommon in gardens – I only saw my first one on a nature reserve in 2015 – so I’m very pleased to have them. We have two pairs visiting this Winter, I always hope that one day a pair will bring their fledglings along.

A visit to Burtonwood Nature Park

A while ago I stumbled across a page for a place called Burtonwood Nature Park on Facebook.  The photos on the page looked amazing, with loads of different bird species present on site.  I bookmarked it sometime earlier this year and resolved to visit.

I finally made it during the last week in November.  The site is a small nature reserve, looked after by volunteers who have set up feeding stations and hides from which to photograph the birds.

I made my way to a hide within the woodland and settled in.  Before long the first birds appeared, as well as the perches set up around the hides there are plenty of trees for the birds to perch in.

IMG_0473-1IMG_0622-1IMG_0815-1

I was particularly happy to see Chaffinches and to be able to photograph them close up for the first time – they aren’t a visitor to our garden, sadly.

IMG_0745-1

IMG_0743-1.jpg

And also Coal Tits.  These tiny birds are a frequent visitor to the garden, but they are so fast I am never able to photograph them there.  One moment they are on the feeder, and within an instant they are gone – normally before I even get a chance to focus my camera!  Here I was able to capture them perching on the surrounding branches before and after visiting the feeder.

IMG_0566-1IMG_0577-1IMG_0705-1

I’ve always been intrigued by this behaviour which I’ve seen being performed by both Coal Tits and Blue Tits, where they retreat to nearby branches to eat a seed plucked from the feeder rather than swallowing it down straight away.  They often seem to hold the food between their feet and eat it in small bits.

IMG_0726-1.jpg

I was also thrilled to see Tree Sparrows for the first time.  Their House Sparrow cousins are frequent visitors to the garden and are one of my favourite birds.

IMG_0832-1IMG_0834-1

While I was concentrating mainly on the bird activity in the trees around the hide, there was plenty of activity on the feeding station itself and on the woodland floor.

IMG_0526-1IMG_0686-1IMG_0794-1

But the biggest treat was still to come – a Greater Spotted Woodpecker made multiple visits.

IMG_0605-1IMG_0651-1

All in all I had a wonderful couple of hours here and will definitely be visiting again.

For more details about Burtonwood Nature Park, visit their Facebook page here.

I also follow two local photographers who are regular visitors (and I think volunteers) to the park.  Their pages are well worth a visit too – Allan Mason  and Iain Lenton

Garden Sparrowhawk

We’ve had the first hard frost of the season overnight – Winter is most definitely on it’s way!  I’m off work this week, and when I blearily glanced out of the kitchen window this morning while refilling my coffee cup, I was in for a bit of a surprise.  There on the lawn was a beautiful female Sparrowhawk, tucking into her breakfast.

IMG_0419-1.jpg
Terrible photo I know, but it was quickly taken through the patio doors so that I could ID the bird!!

I have such mixed feelings about this one – after all, I feed these small birds and love seeing them visit the garden, so I think naturally I am quite protective of them.  It’s hard to see them die.  However, the Sparrowhawk needs a meal too and has no other option.  Also, it gives me confidence that the garden is becoming a good little eco-system in it’s own right – once predators start arriving it shows that there is a sustainable population of the prey species.

I’m not familiar with birds of prey, so once I’d grabbed this picture I booted up my laptop to try and identify it.  I quickly learned that ‘it’ was in fact a she, a Sparrowhawk – and a youngster, signified by the white patches on her back.

She’s definitely not something I expected to see this morning, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for her as the Winter draws in.