February 26, 2014

I’ve got tadpoles!

26 February 2014

It’s still February and we’ve got tadpoles!

Just-hatched tadpoles

Just-hatched tadpoles

The spawn was from next door’s pond, as we’ve not had any for three years, and it’s in aquatic pots to keep the newts away, but we’re going to have to get the tadpoles out quickly or they’ll be eating each other. I’m fascinated to be able to see in the photo how little they look like tadpoles at this stage: they’re too flat, except for one or two where you can see the bulge of the head. The stuff they are resting on looks like stones here, but it’s actually the circular blobs of jelly from which they emerged, which are bigger than they were when the tadpoles were still inside them.

We had a day of sunshine today, so the spring flowers were out too, plus several bees.

Bee on purple crocus

Bee on crocus

I’m guessing this is a honey bee on the crocus. There were at least three buff-tailed bumble-bees around, too, but I didn’t get a shot of any of them.

Pulmonaria Blue Ensign

Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’

The plant above is a good early nectar plant to have in the garden for bees: lungwort (pulmonaria). This is one called ‘Blue Ensign’ and it’s a really good blue. The wild version is also very pretty: it’s got spotted leaves and the flowers fade from blue to pink (or is it the other way round?) and both colours are visible at once.

Having some plants for early nectar in your garden is very important for the early bees and butterflies which get tempted out by warm weather, so do make sure you’ve got some. As well as crocus and lungwort, you can try primroses, hellebores, and mahonia (all of which are in flower in my garden at the moment). Mahonia is a small bush, but the flowers are very highly scented and a real treat when there’s not much else. You can also – if you dare – try dandelion and lesser celandine, but they both spread uncontrollably, so don’t blame me if you end up with more than you want!

February 16, 2014

More Signs of Spring

16 February 2014

One of the most potent signs of Spring must be the birds starting to sing. I heard the first song thrush of the year yesterday, and today could hear two robins singing, one on either side of me. We’ve also got a male blackbird – the same one who was around last year, I’m fairly sure – regularly sitting in the ivy on the garage wall, quietly singing away to himself. He isn’t very bothered by we human beings, so you can stand there and watch his throat move as he warbles gently away. I whistled back at him yesterday (one verse of “On Top of Old Smokey”) and I’m sure he started to get louder, so maybe he began to think I was competition!

We’ve had a couple of pheasants in the garden.

Brown Pheasant

Brown Pheasant

This handsome male (above) turned up in January, but only made a couple of visits. The black male below has been here twice in February so far – though it seems unfair to call him black when he’s really such stunning shags of blue: you can really see the relationship to the peacock in this photo.

Black pheasant

Black Pheasant

We actually had some sunshine today, so I got out into the garden for about three hours. Did a bit of greenhouse work; I’ve now got three lots of annual flowers sown: antirrhinum, verbena and scabious. Also did a bit of tidying of one of the borders: at least, at this time of year, the weeds don’t re-grow very quickly, so you can see what you’ve done for a while. We’ve got more rain forecast, so I don’t know when I’ll get out there again.

I hope your weather is being kind to you, wherever you are.

February 7, 2014

Photos to remind us of summer and sunshine

6 February 2014

Like most people in the UK, I suspect, I am very fed up with the weather – rain, cloud, wind, cloud, rain, wind. So I’m going to dig into my photographic archive and come up with a few cheer-us-up pics, which I hope work for you.

Young starling being fed by a parent, with three other starlings busy feeding themselves

Young starling being fed by a parent, with three other starlings busy feeding themselves. May 2013.

Close-up of flower of Iris sibirica 'Ewen'

Close-up of Iris Sibirica ‘Ewen’

Carpet of bluebells under trees

Bluebells near Woodsford. May 2013.

Common Blue on yello rudbeckia flower

Common Blue on rudbeckia flower. August 2013.

Small Tortoiseshell on bright pink sweet william flower

Small Tortoiseshell on sweet william flower

Keep smiling – summer will return eventually!

February 1, 2014

The Newts are Back!

31 January 2014

I’m delighted to say that we’ve seen two newts in the pond! This blog is proving useful, in that I could check back to my post about the arrival of the newts last year, which was 8 Feb; this year it was 26 January, possibly due to the winter being more mild – though whether this reflects the true arrival of the newts, or that we are outside more to spot them, I wouldn’t like to say; we aren’t out there very much at the moment, as it’s so wet.

Yellow Flag Iris flower

Yellow Flag Iris

I’m glad they haven’t been put off by the amount of growth we’ve taken out of the pond this year. From the beginning of the pond, in 2001, I didn’t contain everything in pots, as I felt it was more wildlife friendly to let plants spread naturally, to provide cover. I also made the mistake of putting in some fairly rampant plants: yellow flag iris and marsh marigold, plus bogbean, which have definitely enjoyed the habitat, and which, with other smaller plants, have formed an amazingly impenetrable mass of roots. I’m developing a theory that the marsh marigold is the inspiration to John Wyndham for his book “The day of the triffids! The thick growth is good, to an extent, but they don’t know when to stop (or when I want them to stop, to be more precise) and the pond was in danger of reverting to dry land. So we’ve been in the pond in our wellies and waders hacking stuff out.

It’s a very difficult task: the pond has a butyl liner, so we have to be very careful to avoid puncturing it, but we need to use saws and knives to cut through the roots. I look over the growth we remove very carefully, to try and ensure we don’t eject any wildlife, and saw several back-swimmers and a beetle, but no dragonfly larvae, so I’d imagine they are buried deep in the mud. Anything I missed was in danger of making a snack for the blackbird who came to help us, and flung the stuff we’d ejected from the pond all over the place, including back into the pond.

New pond

New pond

I’ve certainly learnt lessons which I shall apply to our new pond. We decided to widen the patio a bit, to do away with an area we couldn’t make good use of, but that area included a small pre-formed pond, which was there when we moved in. It wasn’t very good for wildlife, as it was too shady and had sides which were too steep, but I wanted to replace it, so we planned a small half-hexagon raised pond as part of the patio. The builders – local friends – suggested it would look better if it extended into the garden, and it actually became an octagon. We’ve further plans to sink a big plastic tray we’ve got below the surface to the side of it, so I can have a boggy area, which I’ve always wanted.

Pale pink Kaffir Lily

Kaffir Lily

I’ve a few plants waiting to go in when we do it – arum lilies (Zantedeschia) and Kaffir lilies (the latin name for which was Schizostylis, but I think they are now Hesperantha, which is at least a bit more pronounceable) for starters, but I may have to visit a few nurseries to find some suitable primulas and other things – isn’t life hard!

January 28, 2014

Sparrowhawks and other birds

28 January 2014

Those of you in the UK will know it’s been the Big Garden Birdwatch this last weekend, when many thousands of people record the birds in their garden for an hour. You will also know that the weather has been dreadful: not cold, but wet, wet, wet. It’s not only we humans who find the rain hard going: on Sunday, about noon, I looked out the window to see this:

Sparrowhawk holding out his wings to dry

Sparrowhawk holding out his wings to dry

He appeared to be using the feeble sunshine to try and dry his wings out, giving me a lovely view of those feathers and talons. I didn’t dare go out into the conservatory to take the photo, for fear of disturbing him, so this is through two layers of glass. I wondered if he was doing his own garden birdwatch, deciding what he fancied for lunch…

I did the Big Garden Birdwatch that afternoon. I lurked down the far end of the garden for a while, which was unusually unproductive: I heard one blackbird and saw a couple of jackdaws, though I was interested to see one of them was collecting nesting material. I then put out a bit of extra birdfood and settled down with the binoculars and a cup of tea in the conservatory – it could be said I’m a bit of a fair-weather bird watcher. My final count was:

  • Chaffinch – 13
  • Blackbird – 2
  • House sparrow – 5
  • Blue Tit – 3
  • Dunnock – 2
  • Starling – 2
  • Great Tit – 2
  • Goldfinch – 3
  • Collared Dove – 3
  • Pigeon (I need to check what type) – 1
  • Jackdaw – 4
  • Robin – 1

The numbers of starlings and sparrows was disappointingly low, as we often see 20+ of each, but they go around in flocks, so you either get a lot or very few.

And finally, a flower picture, though it may have a bird-related theme.

A pale pink flower on a daphne bholua 'Jacquline Postill"

A flower on a daphne bholua ‘Jacquline Postill”

Those black edges aren’t a camera fault, by the way – I’ve just discovered that Adobe Lightroom has a vignetting tool, so I thought I’d try it out on you. All the flowers on the bush are low down, just as they were last year. Higher up I have to wonder if some birds (bullfinches?) have pecked the flower buds out, as there is a surprising lack of bloom. Oh well, I like sharing my garden with wildlife, so I guess I’ll have to share my daphne too.

Make 2014 the year you share your garden with wildlife.

December 15, 2013

The moth that’s smaller than its name

15 December 2013

“The moth that’s smaller than its name” applies to quite a lot of micro moths, though the label “micro moth” doesn’t necessarily mean a moth smaller than one classed as a “macro moth” – you didn’t think it was going to be that simple, did you? However, most micro moths are very small. Out of around 2,500 moths in the UK, only about 900 are classed as macro, so you can see that there are actually more micros than macros.

Here I’m talking in particular about plutella porrectella, a micro moth I see in my garden, or more often in my greenhouse: though that might be because it’s easier to see small things on plants at waist level than ground level. Its body is only about 10mm long: in this photo it is on the leaf of a succulent called crassula, having just emerged from its chrysalis. The adult moth is recorded as flying in May and again in July to August, so the fact that I took this photo in October may be due to the good summer helped by the shelter of the greenhouse environment.

Plutella porrectella moth

Plutella porrectella moth

The foodplant eaten by the caterpillars of this moth is one called Sweet Rocket, or Dame’s Violet in the UK: hesperis matronalis to give it it’s Latin name. As someone who grows plants to sell in aid of Butterfly Conservation, I found myself a bit torn a couple of years back when I first encountered this moth by finding that its caterpillars had eaten all my young plants of it! I now try to live and let live by keeping some of the small plants under cover and letting the moths enjoy the bigger ones, which they can’t damage enough to kill.

What first drew my attention to it wasn’t the adult moth or its caterpillar, but its chrysalis. As you can see in the photo below, it is quite distinctive, forming a loose net around the pupa, usually on the back of a leaf. The one on the bottom leaf is a new pupa: it still looks quite like the caterpillar, while the upper ones show the stages it goes through as it changes from green to brown as it develops. You can also see an empty web, where one has hatched.

Plutella porrectella chrysalis

Plutella porrectella chrysalis

The egg, as you would expect, is also very small: I would not have spotted this one on the underside of a leaf unless I had been looking for it, alerted by the pupae.

Plutella porrectella egg

Plutella porrectella egg

So – look out for small things on your plants – you never know what they may be!

Now we’re into winter, these posts are going to be somewhat sporadic, but they will continue.

November 17, 2013

Ladybirds settle down for winter

17 November 2013

Whilst working in the garden recently, my husband spotted some ladybirds gathered together in a twisted dead leaf on a teasel – five of them, sharing their home with a small snail.

Five ladybirds and snail in dead teasel leaf

Ladybirds and snail in dead teasel leaf.

We noticed an unusual lack of ladybirds earlier this year. Searching the internet for the reasons why, I came across an interesting blog by Richard Comont, who is involved with the national ladybird survey and doing his PhD on ladybirds. Do have a look at the full blog, but he explains that it was mainly the wet weather in 2012 and the long, cold spring in 2013 which caused the crash, but that the hot summer we eventually enjoyed has helped them to recover. If you have seen any, do contribute your sightings to the national ladybird survey.

The life cycle of the ladybird is such that it overwinters from October to Feburary, so presumably this quintet are aiming to stay there all winter – a good example of why it’s not a good idea to clear all the old growth from the garden in the autumn: if this lot had ended up on the compost heap, would they have been able to get out? The seven-spot ladybird can eat up to 5,000 aphids in it’s year of life (as larva and adult), so I want to encourage them.The snail presumably has much the same intention, and I’m quite happy for him to stay there!

We humans have a rather different approach to getting through the winter, and storing harvested crops to see us through is part of it, though we are lucky these days that our winter meals do not depend on what we can grow – we’ve got shops to go to. The photo below is part of our Autumn harvest.

Harvested crops 23 October 2013

Harvested crops 23 October 2013

The apples in the photo are russets – I love them, so we’ll eat them as fast as I can: they only store well for a couple of months. The raspberries went into the freezer, and the dahlias graced our kitchen for a few days. There’s nothing better than home-grown.

October 31, 2013

Ivy flowers attract wildlife

31 October 2013

I’ve extolled the virtues of ivy as a wildlife plant elsewhere in this blog, and it was good to see a confirmation of it’s value the other day. Despite the gales and rain of the night of 27/28 October, the next day the sun shone, and up the top of the garden, on ivy flowers in the sunshine, I was amazed to see six Red Admirals.

Two Red Admirals on ivy flowers

Red Admirals on ivy flowers

I could only get two at any one time in the photo, but here’s a close-up of one of them – isn’t he gorgeous!

Red Admiral on ivy flower.

Red Admiral on ivy flower.

There were also numerous flies and what I think were small wasps (difficult to tell, as they were constantly on the move) enjoying the nectar. Once the flowers finish, the berries will develop, turning black when ripe, and attracting various birds to eat them: I’ve particularly noticed blackbirds and pigeons eating them. Yet another reason for leaving the garden be now – better to clip the ivy back where necessary after the berries have gone, than deprive wildlife of a good source of food.

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October 27, 2013

Dragonfly larvae

27 October 2013

I’ve been surprised and pleased by the number of dragonfly larvae I’m finding in the pond this year. It has been necessary  to net the blanket weed in the pond every day or two while the weather has been sunny: its growth is increased by sunlight. If you haven’t ever met blanket weed, it’s made up of hundreds of green, slimy filaments that form in the water and rapidly turn you nice clear pondwater into pea soup, although with less flavour (I presume – I’ve never tasted it!) Sometimes I pull it out by hand, and another way is to twine it round a stick or something similar, but I’ve been using the net to remove things like dead leaves at the same time, and it’s probably because I am using the net that I’m really noticing the dragonfly nymphs, as they wriggle around in the green slime.

To share them with you, I caught some and put them in an old washing up bowl. They don’t like not having places to hide, so I only kept them as long as it took to take the photos.

Seven dragonfly larva plus five backswimmers

Seven dragonfly larva plus five backswimmers

Together with the larva in the photo above are some backswimmers (also called water boatmen) – acquatic insects who have mastered the nifty art of swimming upside down; they are voracious predators, and carnivorous. I actually caught a couple of them apparently attacking the dragonfy larva, so I soon got them back into the pond.

Large and small dragonfly larvae

Large and small dragonfly larvae

The two very differently sized larvae in the photo above may be different species, but I suspect they are the same species at different stages of growth. Dragonflies, like butterflies, do all their growing in the larval stage, and the adults emerge fully grown. I think they are Southern Hawkers, as we have seen the females laying in the pond, and have sometimes seen the emergence of the adults (magic!). The large one will emerge next year, but the smaller one may be with us for another year or even two before it is fully grown and comes out of the water.

Two different species of dragonfly larvae

Two different species of dragonfly larvae

These two, however, are definitely different species, and I suspect the large one is again a Southern Hawker, while the smaller, wider one is a Broad-bodied Chaser. The differences will be echoed in the adult dragonfly: the Broad-bodied Chaser is just that: broad in the body but not so long, with a blue male, and an olive brown female. The Southern Hawker is a very long, sleek dragonfly, with the male being turquoise blue and the female green; it is a female in my husband’s hands below – she seemed to be stuck in among the reeds, so he waded in to get her out and she obligingly stopped to have her picture take.

Female Southern Hawker

Female Southern Hawker

Dorset is an important county for dragonflies, with 28 out of the 39 British species breeding. One of the biggest threats to dragonflies is the lack of (still) water for the larvae to live in, so if you can have a pond in your garden, please do: they are amazing creatures. If you want to know more, see the Dorset Dragonfly Group website.

October 22, 2013

October Butterflies – 2

22 October 2013

Well, the weather seems to have turned. It’s still very mild, but a lot of rain and fairly windy, so the only butterfly around now is a Red Admiral, who appears when I disturb him as I walk round the garden. So let’s go back and look at some more of the species I saw on 5th and 6th of this month to brighten us up.

Small Tortoiseshell on Aster Frikartii 'Monch', with Comma in the background.

Small Tortoiseshell on Aster Frikartii ‘Monch’, with Comma in the background.

I’ve now got five clumps of this aster round the garden – it’s one of my favourite plants, and the butterflies and other insects seem to like it too.

Meadow Brown on Aster Frikartii 'Monch'.

Meadow Brown on Aster Frikartii ‘Monch’.

It’s unusual to see a Meadow Brown as late as October, and this one has obviously been out for a while, given the tattered state of his hindwing.

Comma on Rudbekia 'Goldsturm'.

Comma on Rudbekia ‘Goldsturm’.

I like this shot – if you see a Comma with its wings closed like this, usually all you see is a very dark background with the while “comma”; here, the sun is shining through the wings, so you can pick up more of the colouring, and it did pose itself beautifully on the rudbekia.

Red Admirals on pink Michaelmas Daisy

Red Admirals on pink Michaelmas Daisy


This shot shows four Red Admirals – in fact, there were ten, but it wasn’t possible to get them all in the same shot. It was interesting that they seemed to stay faithful to this bright pink Michaelmas Daisy, even when it got quite shady, although there were other butterflies on other plants elsewhere in the garden. I suppose they had found a good nectar source and were happy to stick with it, rather than waste energy flying around in search of alternative supplies. They all looked to be in quite good condition, so it is possible they were on a reverse migration: that is, they had been born here, but with winter approaching, were heading south – how sensible!