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.

Garden Round-up – June 2018

I’d forgotten just how busy I seem to get in Summer. Not only is the beekeeping season in full swing, but insects are everywhere, meaning I have loads of photos to sort out and process. Normally there’ll be the odd rainy day where I can blitz through and get things sorted and a blog post or two written – but not this year it seems! I’ve never known a dry spell like it. It’s now July 12th and we haven’t seen rain for a month, a state of affairs unheard of in Manchester! The soil is so dried out that it’s both like sand on the surface and rock hard and compacted underneath. The grass and plants are crying out for a good downpour – there’s only so much I can do with a watering can.

Perhaps trying to escape from the heat I found a frog hiding in the Frogitat! This sits in a shady corner between the ponds and I cover it in leaves each autumn to provide a handy spot for hibernation. I’ve never seen a frog using it in Summer though, until now!

I also keep finding frogs all around the garden at the moment. I think they are trying to find moisture and cooler temperatures wherever they can – crossing between the ponds and hiding under the hedging on the opposite side of the garden.

I suspect the heat this year has led this particular unwelcome visitor to expand it’s range. I’ve never seen Horseflies here before, but they’ve become a common visitor this month, plaguing me while I take photos of other insects.

I also spotted the garden’s first Ruby-Tailed Wasp of the year. These beautiful creatures patrol the South-East facing wall that part borders the garden, partly I think for the warmth and partly because that’s where the bee houses are. For these pretty looking creatures have a darker side. They use their downward facing antennae to seek out the nests of solitary bees and wasps, which they then parasitize. Sneaking into a nest left unattended, they lay their own eggs within it. Once the egg develops into a larvae it will eat the developing solitary bee before hatching out during the next summer. There are several species of Ruby-Tailed Wasp in the UK, and while I have found them in the garden each year and even spotted them exploring the bee houses, they never seem to nest here. I can only assume I don’t have the type of bee they require.

After seeing their success at NQ Growboxes, I planted an Ox-Eye Daisy last Autumn. It started flowering at the beginning of the month and has attracted a whole host of species, including a Leafcutter bee and the garden’s very first Colletes (Plasterer bee).

I was also hugely excited to find my first ever male Yellow Faced Bee in the garden – Hylaeus hyalinatus, or the Hairy-Faced Yellow Face Bee. I first noticed him skittering around the Pieris, and occasionally stopping to sunbathe on a leaf. On a couple of early mornings I also found him roosting in the beehouse.

Also during early mornings the ornamental thistles served as a hotel for sleeping bumblebees that had been caught out overnight.

While later in the day I was able to identify the garden’s first ever Cuckoo Bumblebee, the Forest Cuckoo bee (Bombus sylvestris).

While still sore about the early departure of the Red Mason bees this year, I was happy to see that Osmia leaiana, our Orange-Vented Mason Bee had completed her first nest cell. Instead of capping their nest cells with mud, these bees use chewed up leaves to form a kind of plant mastic instead.

Shortly afterwards, the Wood Carving Leafcutter bees (Megachile ligniseca) began to emerge from the bee houses. First came the males.

Then the females, who quickly began to cut leaves to construct their nests.

Shortly after this I spotted our first ever Sharp-Tailed Bee investigating the Leafcutter bee nests. I’m hoping this is a sign that we have a healthy Leafcutter population this year!

Finally while dead-heading the thistles (they love being dead-headed and will happily flower all Summer if you do this) I found this unusual looking caterpillar belonging to the Vapourer Moth.

What a stunning looking creature!

Weekend Round-up – 19th/20th May 2018

From the continued good weather and lack of rain you’d think it was already Summer!

I’ve noticed that over the past week one of the male Bullfinches has been visiting the garden on his own – I’m hoping that this means that his partner is looking after eggs somewhere. I’d be beyond thrilled if they bought their young to the garden to feed.

We’ve also had our first young fledgling visit the garden. I was taking photos one evening after work when I noticed movement on the back fence…

And it was this little fluffball! I think it may be a Dunnock.

The first Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) workers have finally started to arrive. They are late this year, but then I am still waiting for the Cornflowers to wake up! I like to think these are the daughters of the Queen who I found with her head in the Solitary Bee House all those weeks ago.

A couple of Starlings have started to visit daily and seem to have made it their personal mission to help me run down my stock of suet balls.

I adore Starlings. They, and Sparrows, are the garden birds I have the most vivid memories of as a child. I clearly had a thing for brown birds, though I’m not even sure a Sparrow counts as a brown bird with that iridescent sheen and those white flecks.

Finally, a new visitor to the larger pond. I’ve been silently hoping for dragonflies and damselflies to start using the ponds for a while so was incredibly happy when I saw a familiar skittering movement out of the corner of my eye on Sunday afternoon. I turned to see a female Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) perching on one of the plant stems.

She stayed for a few hours and kept moving from leaf to leaf. I hope she’s chosen this as her territory, or better still was laying eggs here. I guess that in a couple of years I’ll find out!

The Ponds

One of the main things that I wanted for my garden was a pond.

We’d had one in my garden growing up, and I knew how much wildlife they attracted.  The garden was also quite damp – we even had a frog splitting it’s time between the shady borders and the compost bin.  What would be better than giving the little fella his very own residence?

However, my husband was less keen.  He’d also had ponds growing up – but they were quite different from what I had in mind.  My father in law is a keen fishkeeper, and his pond is filtered, clear and orderly.  What I wanted was a wildlife pond, no filters, left to run mostly wild and definitely no fish!  A compromise was struck, a small pond could be installed and we picked a corner of the wild border.

Spring rolled around, and the pond was installed.  It took a matter of weeks for ‘the’ frog to move in, swiftly followed by many, many of it’s friends!  Yes, it turns out the one resident frog was actually several resident frogs! We ended up with frogs big and small, no frogspawn as yet so I still don’t know where the little ones appear from.

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With no filtration system, algae can become a problem and the water can turn cloudy and de-oxygenated, which is no good for wildlife.  We solved this problem by including plenty of oxygenating plants and also buying some pond snails which feed on any algae that forms.  This strategy is pretty much self-sustaining, as the snails breed quickly and so any algae soon disappears.  We also put a couple of bags of Daphnia in, these are water fleas which filter feed and again help to keep the water clear.  Daphnia are a live fish food, and so we got ours from the local aquarium shop.

By this year the frog population seemed to be growing exponentially, with a record 17 frogs of varying sizes being seen in the 60 x 80cm pond one day in Spring – so it’s just as well we decided to put another pond in!  By this time my husband was fully on board, and even talked me into a 1000 litre pond instead of the 500 litre one I’d earmarked. The aim with this is to attract other wildlife such as newts and dragonflies which need slightly more space than Pond One offers.

We put the second pond in early this year, and it was just over a week before the first frogs were seen making themselves at home.  We put in some water hyacinth, which the smaller frogs seem to like floating on.flickr-4038

While other baby frogs still prefer the more rainforest-like environment of the original pond (the marsh marigold we planted in there has grown to triffid-esque proportions) –

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My husband is especially keen to attract newts, and so built a moss-covered newt habitat to one side of the pond using some thick bamboo –

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And we are starting to see the frogs starting to explore further round the garden, especially at night and when it rains –

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The only downside, is that this year both ponds seem to be suffering from a duckweed infestation.  We scoop some out regularly to stop the pond surface being fully covered and the plants below starved of light.  The clumps of duckweed we remove are left by the side of the pond for a while for any beasties caught up in it to make their way back to the water before it goes in with the garden waste.

There is one benefit of the duckweed though – bees and wasps use it as a handy platform to take a drink.  I watched this Potter Wasp return a few times one hot day over the Summer –

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So I’ve decided that the duckweed isn’t all bad.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the ponds develop over the coming years.