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  • Helping out the nesting blackbirds

    Miranda Hodgson on 02 May 2014 at 12:53 PM

    There are blackbirds (Turdus merula) nesting in the ivy growing on the garden wall here. I noticed when I saw a female eagerly pecking at the half apple we’d put under the bench and flying into the ivy with a beakful of it. Seeing her going back and forth a few times, I decided to add a little extra for the young birds and went out to the compost bays to dig out some worms. These went into a plastic tray with a bit of the compost and the tray was put under the bench. Blackbirds can find their own worms, of course, but it’s interesting to see them eagerly gathering up the worms and taking them off to feed their young ones.


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  • It’s all happening now!

    Miranda Hodgson on 25 Apr 2014 at 01:10 PM

    It’s the fourth week of April and the garden is a hive of activity. Now that spring is underway, the garden is reacting to the warm and rainy winter by racing into growth and the things look incredibly different to this time last year. The spring of 2013 was one of the coldest I remember and garden plants were set back by at least five weeks, not catching up until the end of May.


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  • Worms have been moving stones in the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 22 Apr 2014 at 01:51 PM

    There are a couple of corners of the garden that I seldom dig – if weeds come up there, I’ll pull them out, but I like to leave these patches to see what happens to the soil surface and to gauge earthworm activity. Because we garden on Oxfordshire cornbrash, there are a lot of stones in the soil and a great many of them end up on the surface. Not only do these stones end up on the surface of the soil, they often appear to be gathered into small piles. When you look more closely at these piles, you can see that there are often bits of plant debris sticking out of the top, usually near the centre of the pile.

     

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  • A stoat visits the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Apr 2014 at 09:50 AM

    The garden gave us a new surprise the other day when we found a stoat (Mustela erminea) in the courtyard. Great find, except that this one was dying.

     

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  • Are gardens primarily for humans?

    Miranda Hodgson on 07 Apr 2014 at 02:36 PM

    In a piece in the April issue of ‘The Garden’, the author says that ‘the garden is a habitat for other creatures, but it is first and foremost a habitat for us’. She worries that gardeners are being bombarded with unwanted advice, not unlike the barrage of advice we get about our diets and exercise, and that gardeners are being made to feel guilty for wanting to garden as they see fit.

     The summer border is filled with lif

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  • Why some flowers change colour and a worm question

    Miranda Hodgson on 26 Mar 2014 at 04:26 PM

    I learned something new today – why some flowers change colour as they age. The reason may be common knowledge to some people, but to me it wasn’t and I’m still feeling happily surprised and more in awe of nature than ever.

     Pulmonaria officinalis showing different flower colour

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  • Butterflies and newts awake, pond snails laying eggs

    Miranda Hodgson on 18 Mar 2014 at 03:22 PM

    The warm weather just lately has encouraged a huge amount of wildlife activity. Species of all types are suddenly visible and active and, in some cases, they are being seen in larger numbers than at the height of last summer. Last Sunday, the 16th, I saw more butterflies in one day than all of last year put together. Some of them, the Peacocks (Inachis io) in particular, had overwintered on the rafters in our garage and we left the door open so they could get out. After warming themselves in the sun for 15 minutes or so, they flew off in search of the flowers holding their first meal of the year. I also saw the beautiful Comma (Polygonia c-album) and yellow Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni).


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  • We have a resident Sparrowhawk

    Miranda Hodgson on 02 Mar 2014 at 02:26 PM

    It seems we have a resident sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus). Regularly during the last couple of years, I have found the scatterings of feathers indicative of a sparrowhawk having plucked its prey in the garden. This morning’s breakfast bird appears to have been a white domestic pigeon (Columba livia).


    We see a lot of white domestic pigeons here - these two were on nextdoor's roof
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  • Crows dropping walnuts on driveways

    Miranda Hodgson on 24 Feb 2014 at 03:13 PM

    I like crows (Corvus corone), but when they drop walnuts right next to where I’m standing, which just miss landing on my head, it has to be said that my affection for them is somewhat diminished. Saying that, they have to make a living somehow and their chosen method for cracking walnut shells is straightforward and yields results for a minimum of effort– find a whole walnut, fly up to around 9m in height above a suitably hard surface and drop your nut. Hopefully, it will break open on impact and reveal the tasty flesh within and the crow will get to it before another crow sees and eats it up. 

     

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  • What species might cause damage in the garden this year?

    Miranda Hodgson on 19 Feb 2014 at 12:37 PM

    I’m playing a game with myself to try and guess which garden wildlife might cause a problem in 2014. In 2013, there was a noticeable increase, in the gardens I frequent, in vine weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus) larvae eating plant roots, especially Heucheras. In those cases, I got to them in time and managed to root up what was left, so the plants survived. The larvae were put out for the birds and quickly eaten up by a robin. This year, on the other hand, I’ve been finding more Angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) moth caterpillars than previously.

     

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  • Boosting garden soil after flooding

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Feb 2014 at 02:25 PM

    Being a gardener, one of my major concerns is the soil and the life in it. There can’t be a square inch of soil in the UK that hasn’t been waterlogged these last two months and large areas have been, and still are, under water. I look at the sodden gardens and the fields that now resemble lakes and wonder what’s happened to all the creatures that live under ground or who are caught out by flooding – voles, moles, hedgehogs, mice. Some will have made it to higher ground while others, sadly, will have been washed away and drowned.

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  • Choosing late season food plants for wildlife

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Jan 2014 at 05:29 PM

    This year I’m going to put in more herbaceous perennial plants to extend the food season for wildlife. There are already late-flowering plants in the garden – Hesperantha coccinea (previously called Schizostylis coccinea) flowers reliably in late summer and autumn, while Sedum spp were still going strong in mid-September. In a mild autumn, Calendula will flower until the first frosts and Penstemons in sheltered areas can keep going till late. This year, however, I want to reliably fill in the gap between late flowering perennials and winter flowering plants – they must provide pollen and nectar, then go on and provide seed for birds and they must pretty much look after themselves apart from being watered sometimes and divided every few years. It would be pleasing if they’re attractive to humans as well. Not that much to ask, really. Looking back at the photographs I’ve taken during the last several years, combined with giving other people’s gardens a good look over late in the year, I’ve got a list of five plants that I hope will extend the season for as long as possible. Two of them have been in the garden for some time, but this year I’ll bulk them up for a larger display. One of the two is tall, wiry Verbena bonariensis with its clusters of tiny purple flowers. Bees and butterflies love the flowers and after flowering the seedheads attract Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) who pick out the seeds with their sharp beaks. The other plant already here is Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) with its big yellow flowers that often open late in the day. It provides large amounts of pollen and attracts, amongst others, hoverflies. Once flowering is done, the seed capsule is broken open by birds who eat the seeds. Interestingly both plants are more scented after dark than during daylight.

     A female hoverfly, possibly Criorhina asilica, on Evening Primrose. Read More...

  • A new spider comes to visit

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Jan 2014 at 04:04 PM

    During the recent stormy weather, I haven’t been outside much and have instead been looking at garden wildlife out of the window. You can’t see a lot that way, but the birds seem pretty active and the sparrows, if anything, are noisier than ever. Living in an old stone converted stable block with mature trees and gardens nearby means that a fair bit of wildlife comes in through the windows, so there is the (possibly dubious) advantage of examining some of it close up and without getting rained on. We get woodlice aplenty, moths, daddy longlegs, a few flies, wasps, bees and a great many spiders. Close-up spider images follow the one below...

     

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  • So, how was 2013 in the end?

    Miranda Hodgson on 31 Dec 2013 at 09:31 AM

    2013 was a mixed year here. It is said that the coldest March since 1962 stopped frogs breeding, owls and seabirds suffered from lack of food, with many dying, and mammals coming out of hibernation found little to sustain them. Spring plant growth seemed to pretty much stall, until many were a good five weeks behind on the previous year’s growth. Once the weather began to warm, fruit flowering got started and it was one the best blossom years I can ever remember. Apples, hawthorn, Cotoneaster, Pyracantha – in fact all the members of the huge rose family, Rosaceae, were covered in so many flowers that some appeared to have a layer of snow on them and this was followed by a bumper year for fruit.

     Blossom on apple 'James Grieve'

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  • Mystery of an abandoned nest with eggs in it

    Miranda Hodgson on 04 Dec 2013 at 11:21 AM

    The other day I was shown an abandoned greattit (Parus major) nest with eggs in it. The person who showed me the nest cleans out the nest boxes in November (the law states that nesting boxes may be cleaned between 1 August and 31 January and must otherwise be left alone). This nest was clearly long-abandoned, the eggs cold and brittle – the egg I took out to measure cracked when I picked it up.

     

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  • Look out for bold winter robins in your garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 02 Dec 2013 at 03:17 PM

    From November to December, it is noticeable that robins (Erithacus rubecula) start appearing in pairs rather than by themselves. From summer until late autumn they will have been solitary and extremely territorial, chasing away any other robin that dares to intrude on their patch. By the beginning of winter, male and female robins form pairs, though the relationship at this point seems to involve little more than not attacking one another.


    This one almost stood on my boot

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  • Peppered moths and their curious means of camouflage

    Miranda Hodgson on 06 Nov 2013 at 01:05 PM

    There is an interesting caterpillar to look out for at this time of year, the caterpillar of the Peppered moth (Biston betularia). It’s very easy to miss, because it has such good camouflage and looks almost exactly like a rose stem, being just the right shade of green, the head seemingly the start of die-back on a broken stem and the legs looking like rose thorns. Other protrusions mimic leaf scars and stem buds. The caterpillars are just starting to appear now and I saw the first one this week, cleverly hidden during its daytime resting period.

     

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  • Planning ahead for hairy-footed flower bees and bidding farewell to a bird

    Miranda Hodgson on 03 Nov 2013 at 01:27 PM

    Here we are in autumn and I’m already thinking about spring. I’m thinking about it because I’d like to encourage more hairy-footed flower bees, also known as spring bees (Anthophora plumipes). They’re easy to miss because they move so fast, zipping from one flower to the next, emitting a shrill hum as they fly. In trying to get a reasonably clear photograph of a female, I ended up with several pictures of fuzzy black blobs that could have been anything.



    One of the interesting things about these little bees is that the male and female are so unalike; the male has gingery hair and a buff tail while the female is almost entirely black, except for the yellowish hairs that cover her back legs and can easily be mistaken for pollen sacs. You can see them in the image above.

    The reason that I’ve been noticing hairy-footed flower bees is that we have Pulmonaria officinalis growing in the garden, which is a great plant for attracting them. It is very easy to grow and I’ve divided and moved existing clumps so that we have more flowers in spring, and hopefully more bees, but am now considering adding some other varieties and seeing what the bees make of those. Pulmonaria ‘Moonshine’ with its green-edged, silvery-white foliage is tempting and I am also lured by the glorious blue flowers of Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’. Eye candy for us humans and food for the bees – can’t be bad.

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  • Preparing for winter

    Miranda Hodgson on 21 Oct 2013 at 02:39 PM

    The weather is still mild, but autumn has suddenly arrived and a few winter preparations are in order. Not many, though, as I’m of the ‘don’t tidy up too much’ school of gardening and prefer to leave plenty of shelter and foraging opportunities for the wild life. Stems holding seedheads will be left in place, unsnipped, for birds to pick amongst, their deft beaks easily opening up the pods to find the seeds within.

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  • Young newts spotted in our tiny pond

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Jul 2013 at 01:13 PM

    The last time I wrote, two smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) had recently arrived in the tiny pond in the garden and were making themselves at home. We’d gone out to get some plants and I’d begged some weed and water from a nearby pond.



    We kept an eye on the pond, but didn’t see much of the newts; frequently all we saw was a tail disappearing into the weeds. At least it showed they were still there, but we wanted to see more. Then, one day, we had a treat. Looking into the water, we saw one of the newts behaving oddly. First it would thrash its tail about, as if trying to scratch its belly and then it seemed to do a little dance, jigging its feet up and down. There was a pause and then the same sequence of movements was carried out. It was the male newt’s mating dance, carried out to draw the female. The female suitably attracted, the male then deposits a capsule containing sperm which the female picks up in her cloaca, drawing it into herself where fertilisation takes place. A few days later, she will start laying eggs, which are carefully hidden in rolled up leaves. All being well, the eggs hatch out within two to three weeks.

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  • New pond excitement

    Miranda Hodgson on 28 May 2013 at 12:19 PM

    During the slow process of renovating the garden at home, we found a tiny overgrown pond tucked away in an especially shabby corner. It was so overgrown that you could easily miss it – with Cerastium tomentosum and herb Robert (Geum urbanum) taking over at the edges and ringed in by thick stands of invasive Solidago canadensis (Golden rod). In a larger garden, I’d have left it as it was, but in an average sized garden like this one, it didn’t work and, since we are told that wildlife gardens do not have to be overgrown wildernesses, I decided to give it some attention having the idea that, whilst it’s good to know that it’s there, we would also like to actually see it.

    The pond at the beginnin

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  • Hungry deer raiding rural gardens

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Apr 2013 at 09:32 AM

    Driving around Oxfordshire these last few weeks and looking at the countryside, I do not see a ‘green and pleasant land’ – it is brown. The trees are brown and so is the grass. Here we are in the second week of April and there is almost no new plant growth. The wildlife are hungry and deer have taken to rural gardens in their search for food. Plants I have lovingly tended are being stripped of their foliage, stems roughly pruned. You can’t blame the deer. It’s not their fault that this winter has dragged on for so long and if there are evergreen shrubs and bulb foliage they can get at they’re bound to do their best to get at them. It’s been interesting to see what plants attract deer in a domestic garden. The mossy mounds of Saxifraga x arendsii were one of the first to be sampled, the green rosettes nipped off. They didn’t eat all of them and some were left scattered, so maybe they weren’t too keen.



    Also palatable is Euonymus fortunei, this one being ‘Silver Queen’. This plant has lost nearly all its foliage and is looking distinctly twiggy. I know deer also enjoy the small leaved Euonymus japonicus microphyllus, because a few years ago they ate one of mine down to the ground.

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  • Helping wildlife through this cold spell

    Miranda Hodgson on 25 Mar 2013 at 12:21 PM

    The birds got it wrong, didn’t they. There they were, all optimistic and full of song and now winter has returned with a vengeance. It isn’t snowing here any longer, but it hasn’t melted and the ground is frozen solid. No worms for the ‘early bird’ to catch at the moment. A week or so ago, the soil temperature was around 5C, now it is back to just above 0C.

     

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  • Spring, cats and an angry blackbird

    Miranda Hodgson on 18 Mar 2013 at 12:01 PM

    This winter seems to be lasting forever, but the birds know that spring is on the way. Pigeons (Columba palumbus), who always start early, already have young ones in the nest as seen from discard shells on lawns and pathways. Other birds are toying with nesting materials, picking up moss and plant stems to examine their suitability for building. The singing is noticeably louder – robins, dunnocks, thrushes and chaffinches are now all in full voice and their songs fill the air from dawn to dusk.

     

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  • One bird's nest ends up being used three times, by different species

    Miranda Hodgson on 07 Mar 2013 at 12:18 PM

    I had an enjoyable afternoon renovating a gloomy corner of a garden the other day. Some overhanging branches of a large sycamore tree in a neighbouring garden had been removed the year before and the space revealed made it clear how the nearby shrubs had been straining for light. A Rosa moyesii had leaned over and laid half of its tall stems over a Viburnum tinus, which was itself leaning over a variegated Photinia davidiana ‘Palette’. As I stood looking at it all and thinking about where to begin work, I spotted an old nest perched on top of the confused mass of stems. It was obviously old because there was grass growing out of the top, so I got it down for a closer look and was fascinated to discover that the original nest had been re-purposed, not once but twice.

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  • Spotting long-tailed tits' nests and other bird news

    Miranda Hodgson on 04 Mar 2013 at 10:10 AM

    The birds are already nesting and for the past week, I’ve seen the discarded white shells of half a dozen pigeon eggs on lawns and pathways. Pigeons always start nesting early, though, and they finish late in the year. Now that March is with us and the weather is starting to warm again, other birds are thinking of nesting. More birds are singing, to attract mates and defend their territories. Various materials are being gathered and arranged with secret skills into snug nests. In trees, bushes, hedges, sheds, plant pots, nooks and crannies and even the pocket of a coat left hanging on a tree, great works are being carried out.


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  • How to tell a male robin from a female robin

    Miranda Hodgson on 20 Feb 2013 at 11:36 AM

    At every garden I visit just now, I am attended by one or two robins (Erithacus rubecula). They look and behave so much alike that, when there is just the one robin in attendance, it almost feels like the same bird is following me about from one garden to another. You read that male and female robins are identical, but this is not the case – there is a difference, but it is slight and because robins often stand side-on when they’re watching us, it isn’t easy to see. The difference is seen in what can be described as the ‘hairline' and is clearly shown in the linked photographs here; the female bird’s hairline is ‘V’ shaped and the male’s is ‘U’ shaped. You can make out the ‘V’ in the picture below (taken with a zoom lens from some distance away). Since the eggs are incubated by the female only, this makes the distinction clear.



    During late winter and early spring, robins form pairs and this makes it easier to tell male and female apart. It was only a week ago, when a pair of mated robins were bold enough to stand facing me for some minutes, just a metre away from where I was kneeling, that the difference became truly obvious. One robin had a distinct ‘V’ hairline and the other had a much flatter ‘U’ hairline. The two birds watched every move I made as I weeded through a rockery, darting forward to pick up worms and insects and then moving back to keep their vigil a short distance away.

    The habit robins have of following gardeners is age old and at one time, when there were fewer humans, they more often followed wild pigs to find the food unearthed by the pigs' foraging snouts. This is called ‘commensal feeding’, with humans being the ‘beaters’ and robins being the ‘attendants’. It isn’t confined to robins, either; think of the gulls and crows that follow the farmer’s plough. Blackbirds do it as well – there have been many occasions when I’ve dug a planting hole, gone to pick up the plant and returned to find a blackbird in the hole, busy finding worms.

    Robins are extremely territorial and their behaviour towards each other outside the mating season is hostile, sometimes resulting in fights to the death, but during late winter and spring they make charming company for gardeners. Some are restless, flitting from branch to ground, others will sit in a nearby shrub and sing their quiet, wistful sub-song. The reason for sub-song is probably that they are singing to themselves, but it is easy to hold the impression that it is sung for us alone, for surely no other bird could hear it.

    From ‘Address to a Robin’

    Come, sweetest of the feathered throng,
    And soothe me with thy plaintive song;
    Come to my cot, devoid of fear,
    No danger shall await thee here…

    Hop o’er my cheering hearth, and be
    One of my peaceful family
    Then soothe me with thy plaintive song,
    Thou sweetest of the feathered throng.

    Edward Jenner (1749-1823)
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  • Discovering insect remains far inside rotting wood

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Feb 2013 at 02:15 PM

    After the cherry tree was cut down, I stacked some of the wood into a couple of piles so that it could rot down and continue to provide a habitat for the various wood-boring insects, and those who use the holes and tunnels once they are finished with by the original excavator. Looking through some of the pieces of wood, I saw fragments of metallic green insect body parts, and in looking for answers, for a few short and glorious days, I thought they might be the remains of the rare and endangered noble chafer beetle (Gnorimus nobilis). How exciting that would be.

    What I thought might have been the remains of a noble chafer beetle
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  • Leave those seed heads for the birds

    Miranda Hodgson on 01 Feb 2013 at 12:27 PM

    I like to leave the seed heads of flowering plants on over winter for two reasons. One, because they are attractive when frosted at a time when there isn’t a great deal of interest to be found in the garden and, two, because birds such as Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Siskins eat the seeds. It saves a bit on buying bird food, it gives us something to marvel at when we see the birds taking the seeds and the birds themselves will benefit from finding them.

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  • Goodbye cherry tree, hello apple trees

    Miranda Hodgson on 23 Jan 2013 at 12:38 PM

    Last autumn, the lovely old cherry in the garden had to be felled. Estimated to be about 120 years old, we knew its days were numbered but were still surprised when we got up one morning to find a large branch had fallen off in the night. The wood of the fallen branch was clearly rotten.

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  • Improving the soil with trench composting

    Miranda Hodgson on 14 Jan 2013 at 12:21 PM

    There is a corner at the end of the garden where we’d like to grow a few vegetables – it is sunny and warm but, for a couple of reasons, the soil needed some major work on it. Firstly, I have wondered if the previous occupants here ever added any organic matter to the soil; it seems a bit thin and stony and there isn’t a great deal of worm activity. Secondly, to screen the really rather inoffensive shed they’d planted six conifers, (some variety of Chamaecyparis lawsonia, I think) with the result that the soil for many feet around is bone dry. With not a little pleasure, we removed them. Even with the incredible amount of rain in 2012, the soil was still very dry indeed and I decided to try an idea new to me: composting trenches.



    Instead of adding your vegetable kitchen waste to the compost heap, you dig a trench or a hole, at least a foot deep, and bury it. This adds moisture and nutrients at the root zone and encourages the activity of worms and other soil creatures. Starting in late autumn, a trench was dug where the conifers had been.

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  • My best plants for bees

    Miranda Hodgson on 10 Sep 2012 at 01:11 PM

    Having enjoyed the series on wildlife in gardens, ‘Living Gardens’ in The Garden magazine, the monthly magazine sent out to RHS members, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the flowering plants that attract the most bees in my garden. Working in the garden at the weekend, I was struck by the newly opening flowers of a Sedum spectabile which was crawling with honey bees. There are wild honey bees in this area and also people who keep hives nearby, so they may have been wild or kept bees, or both. Sedums are certainly high on the list for late summer and autumn.



    Linaria purpurea is another good plant for bees and useful in that it starts flowering early in the year and keeps on going until the frosts arrive. It can be a bit of a nuisance, seeding itself in pathways and amongst other plants, but it’s easy enough to pull out.

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  • Looking at Geranium sawfly larvae

    Miranda Hodgson on 29 Aug 2012 at 02:11 PM

    As if it wasn’t enough to have sawfly larvae eating rose leaves, another type have been spotted eating the leaves of a hardy Geranium (possibly Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’). In June this year, it was noticed that the leaves had been eaten away so that only a skeletal structure of veins remained. The lady who grows the plants hadn’t seen a pest getting at them, but kneeling down for an extended peer at the underside of the leaves revealed tiny, greenish caterpillar-like larvae, slowly but deliberately making a meal of the foliage – the larvae of the Geranium sawfly.


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  • What's eating the rose foliage?

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Aug 2012 at 12:35 PM

    Something is eating the leaves on the roses – if left to it, stem-like leaf veins would be all that remain. Seeing the ragged foliage and looking more closely, I see around the leaf edges tiny creatures that resemble caterpillars. They are not caterpillars, though, they are rose sawfly larvae.



    There are two common species of rose sawfly in the UK, Arge pagana and Arge ochropus, with A. pagana being the most common. As to how they got there, the adult fly, which looks a bit like a brown flying ant, will have laid her eggs in tiny cuts that she made in the leaf, using her saw-like ovipositor (egg-laying organ). The roses that have been affected so far are all young containerised plants - a patio rose, ‘Sweet Dream’, climbing ‘Iceberg’ and ‘Zephirine Drouhin’, as well as some small unknown plants coming on from cuttings, one of which may or may not be ‘New Dawn’.

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  • Looking at a Harlequin ladybird larva

    Miranda Hodgson on 20 Jul 2012 at 09:25 AM

    Despite the rain and chilliness of the last three months, ladybird larvae have appeared at almost the same time as they did in 2010. Back then, the first sighting was on the 12th of July and this year I spotted the first one on the 18th of July. But,it wasn’t a British ladybird larva, it was a harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) larva, an invasive species which has been spreading north and west throughout the UK since it was first sighted in the south east of England in 2004.

    Harlequin ladybird larva
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  • Chafer beetle on the lawn - tread on it or let it go?

    Miranda Hodgson on 16 Jul 2012 at 03:06 PM

    Arriving at a garden the other morning, I just missed treading on a chafer grub beetle, otherwise known as a May bug or Melolontha melolontha. This one was sitting very still in the middle of a lawn, which was not a good place. I wondered if had been there since the previous night as these beetles are active at night, resting on trees during the day.



    Not wanting to tread on it, and thinking it would be better off in sunshine (yes, there was actually sunshine that day!), we encouraged it to crawl onto a leaf and deposited it on the wooden edge of a cold frame. After sitting in the sun for a couple of minutes, it suddenly woke up and crawled away quite quickly.

    There have been few chafer beetles seen around this year, no doubt because of all the rain we’ve had this year. In other years, they can be seen flying at night during the months of May and June. Attracted by the outside lights of houses, they often annoy people by flying in through open windows and buzzing around their heads. That hasn’t happened this year, but maybe it’s partly because it’s been raining much of the time and we haven’t had the windows open as much.

    The grubs of chafer beetles, chafer grubs, are familiar to farmers and to those with lawns, as they eat the roots of plants and can cause damage to grass pastures and crops. The grubs are easy to recognise, being up to 4cm long, with white bodies, brown heads and grey ‘tails’. They live as grubs for three years and cause damage during this time.

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  • Grey squirrels and young birds visit the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 02 Jul 2012 at 11:17 AM

    Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) visit the garden regularly – there is plenty of wild food for them here – nuts, fruit and seeds. The growing number of tree peony (Paeonia lutea) seedlings springing up in the lawn is the result of their burying the seeds, though whether they come back and eat any, I have yet to discover. The plump little seedlings are carefully dug up and put in pots; I have no idea what I’ll do with them all. As far as bought food goes, the peanuts are reserved for the small birds and woodpeckers – a squirrel can empty a peanut feeder in less than half a day, whilst it will take the birds up to a week. We’ve had a squirrel-proof nut feeder for some years but I’d never seen it in action before the other day.

     

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  • A sparrowhawk visits the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 15 Jun 2012 at 10:23 AM

    After writing about the joy of seeing so many birds coming in to the garden, I can’t really protest the visit of a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus). Coming home for lunch the other day, going into the kitchen, reaching for the kettle and automatically glancing out of the window looking onto the garden, I saw feathers drifting through the foliage of the Magnolia tree. It could mean only one thing: a sparrowhawk. As we later discovered from the feathers (useful feather identifcation page here), this one had taken a goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and was up in the tree making a meal of it.



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  • Sparrows, and other birds, return to the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 08 Jun 2012 at 12:58 PM

    In February 2011, just over a year ago, I said that there weren’t any sparrows (Passer domesticus) coming to the garden, but that there were plenty of them in gardens on the other side of the green. I wondered if we didn’t have enough plants to attract them and vowed to plant more. I did plant more, lots more, but as luck would have it, nearby neighbours were changing their planting and I acquired several rose plants which are currently sitting in temporary containers in the courtyard before going to new homes. Some of them had aphids on the flower buds and it was during a period of dithering about whether to spray, squish or wait for the ladybirds to turn up and sort it out that the sparrows came to the rescue. Looking out of the window, I noticed movement amongst the stems and foliage of the roses and, to my delight, realised that a male and a female sparrow were carefully picking off all the aphids from the flower buds and leaves. Good birds!



    I’ve been thinking about what has changed, because this year we do have sparrows – not in big numbers, granted, but we see them and hear their cheeps and chirps almost every day. They often gather in the top of a large Cotoneaster glacialis, which has been allowed to increase in size with the idea of it providing nectar, fruit and shelter, and cling to the slender upright stems, from where they can see into this garden and also into next door’s. They have discovered the food and water under the Magnolia and also spend time rummaging about the plants in the borders, which are now starting to fill out with a range of shrubs and herbaceous perennials

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  • The young Great Spotted Woodpeckers have left the nest

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Jun 2012 at 12:45 PM

    It’s was clear that the young great spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) were growing fast by the increasing volume of their voices. What started as a fairly quiet squeaking, akin to a wheel catching on something as it turned, fast became a loud and incessant ‘Tchick! Tchick! Tchick!’. The parents’ call was similar and mainly distinguished by being outside the nesting hole. Our woodpecker serenade started at first light and only ended when night fell and the woodpecker family at last went to sleep.

     

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  • The great spotted woodpecker eggs have hatched

    Miranda Hodgson on 20 May 2012 at 11:38 AM

    The great spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) have changed their behaviour. The male has stopped his territorial drumming on the wooden roof of one the hanging bird feeders and, whilst we had quite often seen them together in the Magnolia tree, they are now only seen alone. I believe what has changed is that the eggs, having been incubated for 10-16 days, have hatched.


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  • Unwelcome guests in the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 15 May 2012 at 11:19 AM

    Wildlife is good and necessary for a healthy ecosystem, we know that, but there are some species that are less welcome than others. Top of my list of Unwelcome Visitors this week is the horsefly (Haematopota pluvialis, which means ‘blood-drinker of the rains’), also known as the cleg or clegg fly.

    Picture from Wikimedia Commons
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  • Great Spotted Woodpeckers are nesting in the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 03 May 2012 at 10:20 AM

    Last July a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) started visiting the garden and we watched as it ate peanuts from the hanging feeder and clambered about the Magnolia tree. The tree is only a few paces from the kitchen window, so we had a good opportunity to get a close look at this fine bird. As its adult plumage came in we saw that it was a female, the back of the head being black rather than with the red markings of the male Great Spotted Woodpecker.

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  • Bluetits find a good use for tennis balls

    Miranda Hodgson on 14 Apr 2012 at 10:52 AM

    To protect the raspberries and strawberries last year, we put up a frame of bamboo canes held together by tennis balls and fitted some netting over it. The protection worked and the frame has remained standing since last autumn when the netting was removed.

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  • Blackbirds fighting to the death

    Miranda Hodgson on 03 Feb 2012 at 11:35 AM

    Knowing that birds fight over resources in winter, what I found yesterday wasn’t entirely a surprise. Going through the side gate of the garden I was visiting, I noticed clumps of black feathers scattered about and then came upon a rather grisly sight – two dead blackbirds (Turdus merula) laid side by side and they had obviously died fighting. They were lying close enough to be touching each other, both were bloodied and one had feathers in its beak and claws. One was certainly an adult male, shown by the black feathers and yellow beak, whilst the other may have been a female or a younger male that had not yet developed a yellow beak. It wasn’t very easy to tell as both birds were frozen solid and covered in frost.

    I tried to imagine what might have happened for both birds to end up dead and yet be lying side by side. Except for on their bodies, there was no blood to be seen. Did they die of exhaustion, did they both die of their injuries at the same time, or could they have somehow knocked each other unconscious and then died of cold? Without thawing them out and investigating more closely, which I was not inclined to do, there was no way to tell.

     

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  • Finding earthworm middens in the courtyard

    Miranda Hodgson on 24 Jan 2012 at 12:39 PM

    It seemed that as soon as I mentioned the mild winter weather being good for watching the activities of worms, half the country turned white with frost, sending the worms deeper into the soil. Thankfully, it’s warmed up and the worms are active again. After reading some more about earthworm middens, I’ve been out looking for them. Not hard, as I spend much of my day outside, so there isn’t far to go. Sure enough, once you actually start looking, you can see that there are a great many leaves standing upright and half way into the soil, all pulled in by worms. This led me down to the end of the courtyard at home, where there is still a layer of fallen leaves that haven’t been cleared away. I got a rake out and started raking gently to see what was under the leaves. Sure enough, while most the leaves were easy to rake up, small mounds were left that didn’t want to shift.



    These mounds of old leaves were 6-10cm across, pretty much circular and fairly evenly spaced. Pulling at the bits of leaf, I found resistance, as they were partly embedded in the soil under the layer of gravel. Was it a worm midden?

    I carefully pulled away the top layer to see what was underneath. When the ‘cap’ came away, you could see the worm’s tunnel in the middle of it and see where the entrance was blocked up with partially composted leaves.

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  • What are the worms up to?

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Jan 2012 at 02:48 PM

    This mild winter is a good time for looking at the activity of earthworms. The soil is moist and our lawns are a mass of worm casts, a mix of worm excrement and soil. The number of small coiled piles of worm casts tell us that there is indeed a great deal going on under the surface and it’s interesting to think about just what is happening under there. What are they doing?

     

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  • What kind of mouse built this nest?

    Miranda Hodgson on 30 Aug 2011 at 12:40 PM

    The garage was given a tidy up the other day. In a corner, tucked away against one wall, on top of a box was a neat, spherical mouse’s nest made of straw. The straw had come from a big bag of it standing in one corner, so wasn't brought in from outside.

    Whole nest with a lime for comparison.
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  • An unusual pigeon

    Miranda Hodgson on 16 Aug 2011 at 10:27 AM

    Visiting a lady at her garden last week, she told me about an unusual pigeon that had been coming in to take advantage of the moistened dog food biscuits that she puts out and which attract many birds throughout the year. As it happened, the bird turned up while I was there - it even turned around to show me all its plumage, so I took some pictures. This handsome bird is a feral pigeon (Columba livia), showing partial albinism or leucism.



    I wonder where this bird came from? There are pigeons in the town centre, but this one was a distance from there. It was suggested that it might have been a racing pigeon that had become lost, but it has no rings on its legs. Maybe it had escaped from an aviary?

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  • Common darter dragonflies visiting the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 02 Aug 2011 at 11:58 AM

    More dragonflies are being seen - this time it was a Common darter, Sympetrum striolatum, spotted at the vegetable garden and, like last week’s Brown hawker, it was resting and therefore not difficult to photograph. This one was on the ground, rather than up in a tree, so at least no step ladder was needed this time.  

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  • Look out for Brown Hawker dragonflies visiting gardens

    Miranda Hodgson on 29 Jul 2011 at 02:30 PM

    There are plenty of dragonflies to be seen at this time of year. One took a siesta in the courtyard the other day, a Brown Hawker - Aeshna grandis. It landed in the lime tree and high enough up that, even with the lens of the camera at full zoom, a clear picture could not be taken. Feeling a little silly, we got out the step ladder and half expected that the clatter of it being opened up and then climbing up for a closer view, would wake it and it would fly off before a photograph could be taken. As luck would have it, the dragonfly stayed asleep. That or it just didn’t care.

     

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  • Hanging nut feeder attracts a young woodpecker

    Miranda Hodgson on 19 Jul 2011 at 11:28 AM

    The nut feeder which hangs in the enormous Magnolia tree outside the kitchen window is attracting a juvenile Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). We first noticed it when we heard the rattle of the metal sleeve against that of the metal netting which holds the nuts and which suggested that something larger than a bluetit was having a meal. It was quite a shock, as we’ve never seen woodpeckers in this garden before. I was expecting a grey squirrel, so was pleased instead to see a bird.

     

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  • Look out for Scarlet Tiger moths

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Jun 2011 at 11:00 AM

    It was only when we moved to Oxfordshire that I first saw a Scarlet Tiger moth (Callimorpha dominula) but, being fairly widespread in this area, they’re now quite a common sight.



    Scarlet Tiger moths fly during the day and are seen from May to July and, whilst they are said to prefer damp meadows and rocky cliffs, all the moths I’ve seen have been in town gardens, where I’ve come across them resting on foliage, walls or pathways. Unlike many butterflies, they don’t flit about but stay peculiarly still, as if sleeping. You can move the foliage and get very close to them and they just stay where they are and only fly away if you touch them. Most butterflies would have flown off at the first sight of your shadow.

    Staying still is a good trait for these moths, because you can then linger and admire their beauty. The wings, with a span of approximately 60mm (2.3 inches), are an iridescent black-green and are variably marked with dark yellow – sometimes orange - and white, while the under-wings are a rich scarlet, marked with black. The caterpillars feed on a variety of plants, favouring comfrey (Symphytum spp), nettles and bramble, though none of these have been apparent in the gardens where I’ve seen the adult moths; I suppose they must lay their eggs elsewhere

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  • More blackbirds have discovered the dog food

    Miranda Hodgson on 30 May 2011 at 01:20 PM

    More blackbirds have now realised that a little tray of dog food appears in the courtyard each day and have been taking full advantage of it. We have gone from only a couple of birds to two sets of parents and their chicks, who arrive early each morning to take breakfast. Dog food isn’t as good as worms, of course, but as the weather has been dry for so long, there aren’t many worms to be found in the soil surface, so this supplementary food should help. The chicks are certainly growing quickly and some of them are starting to eat by themselves, instead of sitting there squawking and waiting for their parents to feed them. I’m still putting apple out, mainly for the pleasure of seeing the birds eating it, which they do with obvious enthusiasm.

     

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  • Birds looking for food and water during the dry spell

    Miranda Hodgson on 28 May 2011 at 11:36 AM

    The long dry spell has broken in Oxfordshire. From the 30th of March to the 25th of May, I didn’t have to put my waterproofs on once, but we have finally had a couple of days of proper rain. During that time of dryness, many birds have come to gardens to make use of the fresh water put down for drinking and bathing and it seems that some of them have become more accustomed to humans. A young blackbird was pecking in the grass very close to me the other day and didn’t seem at all bothered by me scuffling about in the flower bed and just carried on with what it was doing. Of course, as soon as I went to take a picture, it turned its back on me. That happens a lot – a bird will be in the perfect pose, until I take the picture, when it will turn around and all I get is a picture of its back. That, or it will do something to make the picture blurred.

    Typical

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  • Putting out more water for birds

    Miranda Hodgson on 18 May 2011 at 11:47 AM

    Spending so much time outside in gardens, I’m naturally obsessed with the weather, even more obsessed than most people in a country known for constantly referring to what the sky is doing. The forecasts so far this year have shown very little rain – almost no April showers and very little since then and that follows a relatively dry winter. This means that there are fewer natural water resources for wildlife as there are no puddles, no shallow pools caught in curled foliage and ponds which have not been topped up by rain will be drying out.



    It’s a worry. Not only birds, but small mammals and flying insects will be searching for water and may not find it. They all need to drink and birds need to bathe to keep their feathers in good condition. What to do? What I’ve done here is to increase the number of bird baths in the garden at home. They’re not fancy and don’t need to be; you don’t have to spend out on anything expensive, just find a suitable container to hold clean water. There's probably something in the shed or garage that would do the job.

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  • More wild bees in the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 29 Apr 2011 at 02:26 PM

    There are bees everywhere at the farm vegetable garden just now and in larger numbers than last year. Last week I found the eggs of leaf-cutter bees, but now other species are turning up. The nest of wild honey bees (Apis mellifera) in the wall of a cottage next to the garden, that I watched last year, seems to have grown. The two photographs below were taken exactly a year apart and show the difference in bee numbers. Although the bees have been using that spot for many years, I’ve never seen so many around the entrance. It is a heartening sight.

     April 23rd 201

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  • Finding leaf-cutter bee eggs in compost

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Apr 2011 at 10:28 AM

    We were up at the farm vegetable garden the other day, where I should have been busy weeding and sowing more seeds, but instead I had gone to see the nice lady who lives at the farm. We were rooting through her flower pots to see if the Canna rhizomes had survived the winter (they had), when I came across something exciting. Sifting through the compost, I unearthed what I thought were cigar butts for, at first glance, that is exactly what they appeared to be. A closer examination revealed them to the be something much more interesting: the carefully wrapped eggs of a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile centuncularis).

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  • Ten things seen for too short a time to photograph

    Miranda Hodgson on 15 Apr 2011 at 05:18 PM

    Sometimes, the wildlife in the garden moves too quickly to be photographed. You turn around and, as you do, a brief drama plays out before you. It all happens so quickly; at times, so quickly that if you blinked, you’d miss it. I thought I’d write down some of those glimpses, before they are forgotten.

    There is a loud buzzing from somewhere. I look around and see a big bumblebee land at the edge of a hole in a stone wall and crawl inside. It doesn’t come out again. Must be looking for a nesting site.

    A sparrow flies up from a branch and catches a little white feather which is drifting down through the air. It returns to the branch and flourishes the feather for a moment before disappearing into another garden.

    Hearing rustling, I look towards the nearby fence where the sound has come from. There is a small gap under it and, just for a moment, the four tiny legs and tail of a field mouse are visible as it passes by on mouse business.

    A ladybird takes off from a flower and flies across the garden. I can just make out its wings as the sunlight catches them.

    Two bluetits busily check along the underside of some guttering. Looking for spiders, perhaps?

    Sparrows again, and they’re engaging in an energetic display in a rambling rose, hopping about, fluttering their wings at one another and cheeping at the tops of their voices. A few seconds later and they’re gone.

    I’m edging a lawn and uncover several worms and a great many red ants. Glancing up, I see that a robin is silently following me as I work and gathering up ants, which it flies away with, before returning for more.

    An uncovered earthworm noses its way across an area of freshly dug soil, searching for a suitable entrance. Having found one, it disappears into the moist soil below the surface.

    On a windy day, a bluetit lands on a thin branch, nearly falls off and quickly rights itself, but not before very briefly hanging upside down from the branch.

    Lastly, one where the camera wasn't to hand: I saw a pigeon climb into a half-full bird bath, settle itself, and go to sleep.

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  • Holes in the lawn

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Apr 2011 at 03:05 PM

    Having had some time off for an unpleasant injury, I’m raring to go again and keeping a close watch on what some of the other species around me are getting up to. There is a lot going on at this time of year, so much so that it can be hard to decide which thing to mention first but, on a visiting a few gardens recently, I’ve seen the same thing occurring in them all – little volcano-like mounds of soil with a hole in the top. These are the nests of Tawny mining bees (Andrena fulva).



    Tawny mining bees are found mainly in the south and central UK, though I have also seen nests along sandy woodland paths in Lincolnshire. These attractive, furry little bees are solitary bees and one hole represents one nest. The female will dig out several such holes and, in each, she will lay an egg and surround it with pollen and nectar for the larva to feed on.

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  • The frogs are active but the ladybirds are still napping

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Mar 2011 at 02:02 PM

    Visiting a friend yesterday, I was delighted to see that her garden pond was full of frogs (Rana temporaria) – there must have been 50 or more - and that they are laying spawn. My friend told me that the frogs started laying on Thursday the 10th of March, which is a few days earlier than last year, when they had not yet started spawning on the 14th of March, although they were gathering in the pond and getting ready.

     

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  • Where I see the most house sparrows

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Feb 2011 at 03:06 PM

    As I visit quite a lot of gardens, I’ve been paying attention to how they differ and what type of garden attracts house sparrows, which are declining in number in the UK. Most of the neat and carefully tended gardens attract birds, such as blackbirds, bluetits and chaffinches, but it is those gardens where the shrubs are tall and close together where I see the highest number of house sparrows (Passer domesticus).

    They seem to go for dense growth, like hawthorn hedgerows, or thickets such as you get with rambling roses or Wisteria, where they can sit a few inches down, in amongst the higher growth. From that vantage, they can look out and shout to their heart’s content, without worrying about cats or sparrow hawks. Walls and arches with thick masses of stems and leaves growing over them are ideal. Away from domestic gardens, bramble thickets are also popular. There is a big bramble thicket in a field near here which is always full of sparrow song and you can see the birds distributed throughout the canopy, especially the males with their black ‘bibs’. The paler females blend in more with the plant stems and don’t show up as clearly.

     

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  • Red kites over Witney

    Miranda Hodgson on 15 Feb 2011 at 11:36 AM

    As I work, I like to listen to the birds singing. Listening to the songs of birds can give you an idea of what’s going on nearby without having to look – I call it ‘looking with my ears’. The song might change from tuneful territorial singing to an alarm call, which may mean that a cat has come into the garden or that a blundering human has disturbed a bird. Bird songs are hard to describe, but most people would recognise the shrieking rattle of a blackbird that has been inadvertently startled.

    To start with, I was listening to the usual high-pitched "tsee-tsee-tsu-hu-hu-hu-hu" (listen to it here) of two bluetits (Cyanistes caeruleus) who were busily searching up and down the branches of the Magnolia tree for small insects. This song changed abruptly to what is described as a ‘churring’ sound, which is their alarm call. The other birds heard it – the blackbird rattled loudly and flew at ground level to the tangled safety of a large Cotoneaster, while the pair of robins, who had been watching us work, suddenly started a loud ticking sound and quickly made for shelter.

    A quick look round revealed no cats, no one had come in through the door in the garden wall and there were no sudden loud noises. In fact, the air was still and quiet. What had disturbed them? Looking up, I saw what it was – a magnificent red kite (Milvus milvus) was gliding overhead, possibly looking for carrion or an unobservant small bird to make a meal of. This is a first, I’ve never seen a red kite over this town before and I stopped to admire its graceful flight until it disappeared out of view over the neighbouring rooftops. What a treat that was. The other birds gradually calmed down and went back to their usual behaviour, singing and foraging, but it was interesting to see and hear them warn one another of danger. They will do this when cats are about as well.

     

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  • Blackbird subsong during a weekend tidy up

    Miranda Hodgson on 07 Feb 2011 at 11:27 AM

    It feels warm for February. The mildness has kick-started my annual plant frenzy and the urge to be outside and doing is irresistible. Just as well, because the garden plants, including the weeds, have the same idea and are suddenly bursting into growth. Cleavers (Galium aparine) are growing fast just now, as is Dock cress (Lapsana communis), which is coming up in every bed and seems especially good at hiding close to the foliage of primroses (Primula vulgaris). As is the case in so many gardens, there are also ivy seedlings popping up in numbers.


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  • Bubble gum? No, pink slime mould.

    Miranda Hodgson on 22 Jan 2011 at 05:16 PM

    One of the apple trees succumbed to honey fungus late last year. It was cut down and the branches put in an adjoining field prior to being cut up and burned. Then we had all that snow, so they waited for some weeks.

    We finally got round to dealing with them last week and found something very interesting along the way. In amongst the beautiful lichens growing along the branches were tiny patches of what looked very much like pink bubblegum. If it wasn’t bubblegum, what was it and how did it get there?



    Most blobs were about the size of a pin head whilst others had grown to about 1cm (approx 0.4’’) across. I’d seen something similar, but that was orange and not pink, though also growing on damp, decaying wood. Going back to my books, I looked up the orange blobs and reminded myself that this strange substance is known as a Toothpaste slime mould and apparently they don’t only come in bright orange, but pink as well. They are actually very common, living on dead and decaying wood, and are not considered harmful to living things

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  • How many birds can you spot without leaving home?

    Miranda Hodgson on 07 Jan 2011 at 12:35 PM

    You often imagine bird watchers as being dressed in drab green, sitting in hides in the middle of a marsh, crouched in woodland or crowding together in a church yard to see a rare visitor. You don’t imagine them to be sitting in a small, paved back yard, but it is from just such a yard that the keenest bird watcher I know, Mr John Davison, surveys the bird world. John has been watching birds for over 70 years now and, whilst he may not get about so well these days, it hasn’t prevented him from paying attention from his home in north Lincolnshire - looking out of the window, watching the trees, shrubs, hedges, neighbouring gardens and the skies above. Some are easier to spot than others, of course.



    Male pheasants seem to move about with a curious stealth, as if they believe they are invisible

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  • Wildlife highlights - review of 2010

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Jan 2011 at 01:47 PM

    Looking back over the last year of watching wildlife in the garden, 2010 was a fascinating year with much to be seen, learned from and puzzled over.

    Last January at this time, the ground was covered in snow and ice and we were experiencing the coldest winter for about 30 years. Despite this cold, pigeons were already cooing and bobbing their heads at one another in an invitation to mate. They seem to be the first and the last birds to nest, which might explain why there are so many of them. As winter slowly turned to spring, the activities of mice, birds, frogs and worms became more noticeable. We found stashes of cherry stones in the garage, the woodshed and even in the car engine, whilst the worms in the soil woke from their lethargy and started to move about more. In March, I watched long-tailed tits flying at windows and pecking at them. As they stopped doing this once mating had finished, it was thought to be connected with territory, with the birds maybe seeing their reflections as invaders.

    As the weather warmed, wild honey bees emerged and started to forage on cherry and apple blossom; bumblebees were searching for wall cavities to make nests in; toads and frogs returned to water to mate and I saw many of the strange little bee-mimics called bee flies, which parasitise the nests of solitary bees of the ground-nesting bees by laying eggs in their nests.

    By May, I started seeing birds nesting in hedgerows and in the undergrowth, followed by the discarded shells, carefully dropped by the parent bird a distance from the nesting site. Pigeons, as ever, were the first to hatch and their white shells were spotted in many places. We had a pheasant nesting at the edge of the garden but, although I kept a watch, her eggs hatched when I wasn’t looking and we never saw the young birds. That disappointment was eased by discovering that we had newts at the vegetable garden. They would have been prey to the grass snakes also living there, but the presence of both species shows a healthy environment. 

    Summer saw me watching and recording the building of a wasps’ nest in a shed close to the vegetable garden. It was fascinating to observe the new layers being added to the delicate nest and see the changing behaviour of the wasps. I got chased away by the guard wasps, but didn’t get stung. Ladybird larvae finally arrived in big numbers by mid-July, just in time to get stuck into the multiplying aphid population. Crickets and grasshoppers also showed up in July, around the same time as a great many young birds, who sat cheeping petulantly under shrubs. At the end of July, the wasps’ nest was discovered by what may have been a woodpecker and a big hole appeared in it. The nest was no more and the remaining wasps dispersed.

    In early autumn, I found the strangest thing of the year: a dried out crayfish, high up in a rambling rose, far from water. It must have been dropped by a bird because I simply cannot figure out how else it could have arrived there. By late autumn, the hedgehogs were looking for places to hibernate and the spiders’ webs were drenched with dew in the mornings. Then the dew became frost, the spiders disappeared, the hedgerows became quieter and winter began in earnest at the beginning of December, bringing snow and freezing temperatures. And now a new wildlife year begins – what surprises will there be this year, I wonder?
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  • Frozen worm casts turn soil in to art

    Miranda Hodgson on 10 Dec 2010 at 10:30 AM

    In the part of the garden nearest the house, there is a sheltered passageway leading from the front gate to the garden itself. This area has stayed relatively unfrozen. I say relatively because it still gets frozen, just not as much as the rest of the garden. Walking along it, I looked down at the soil and saw that the surface was extruded into curious formations. In the rest of the garden the soil is like iron and fairly flat, but here fragile, semi-frozen, twisted fingers of soil reached up from the ground, some of them up to 2.5cm high. Naturally, I took some pictures of them.

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  • Cobwebs of autumn

    Miranda Hodgson on 29 Nov 2010 at 04:25 PM

    I reckon I’ve taken the last spider web pictures for this year; the current freeze will have seen the end of most spiders, except those who have, by mistake or design, come in to the house or found shelter elsewhere. Their offspring will survive in egg sacs until spring and can be found around window frames in sheds, in gaps in walls or tucked under piles of dry leaves.


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  • Have your hedgehogs gone into hibernation yet?

    Miranda Hodgson on 19 Nov 2010 at 04:02 PM

    There are fewer signs of hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) about now that the weather is cooling. But, you say, they are nocturnal, so how can you tell there are fewer about if you don’t often see or hear them anyway? Not many people are going to be sitting outside on a cold November night waiting for sight or sound of hedgehogs. There are a couple of easy ways you can find out, without needing to go out in the dark. If there are gaps under the garden fences, these serve as tunnels for hedgehogs, so they can travel from one garden to another.



    Once those gaps start to fill up with leaves and no longer appear trodden, then the hedgehogs have probably gone into hibernation. Next, look at the lawn and pathways in your garden – there will be the usual debris: fallen leaves, bits of bark thrown about by blackbirds, lumps of soil from who knows where, bird droppings and, finally hedgehog droppings. Hedgehog droppings are generally black, roundish and have obvious bits in them; these are mainly the wing cases and other body parts of beetles and other insects, which make up a large part of a hedgehog’s diet.

    There is a lady I know in this town who takes very great care of the hedgehogs in her garden. Every year, in late autumn, she looks out for young hedgehogs and, if she can, she catches and weighs them. If they weigh less than about 600g (approx 1lb 5oz), the hedgehog is underweight and is less likely to surivive until spring. In that case, she will put the hedgehog in a box lined with newspaper, with food and water provided, bring it indoors and call St Tiggywinkles, which is one of the UK’s largest wildlife hospitals. A short time afterwards, someone will come and collect the hedgehog and take it to be cared for until spring, when it will be released back into the wild. There are other wildlife organisations that provide the same service and ask no payment for it either

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  • Egg-like spheres on roots and signs of the sparrow hawk

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Nov 2010 at 03:31 PM

    I was taking down the bean plants last week and stopped to admire some nodules on the roots. You could be forgiven for thinking that the plant had been infested with some horrible pest, but these are not pests and, indeed, they are highly desirable, for they are naturally forming nitrogen nodules. They are found on the roots of many plants of the pea family (including beans, peas, clover and alfalfa) as well as alder trees. It’s useful to know about them so that they aren’t confused with pest eggs and destroyed.



    Briefly, these amazing things are formed by a bacterium called Rhizobium; these invade the plant roots, causing them to form nodules. The rhizobium then take in nitrogen from the air in the soil and fix it into ammonium ions, which is passed on to the plant’s cells. In return, the rhizobium are supplied with carbohydrates. Nitrogen fixing means that less nitrogen fertiliser is needed, because the plant can do that for itself. Isn’t that amazing.

    When we arrive at the garden, I get out to open the gate and my partner drives the car through the field that leads to the garden gate. I like to walk across the field so I can look in the hedgerow and see if anything is happening. It wasn’t that day, but what was happening elsewhere in the field was a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) making a meal of a pigeon. It flew off as soon as we approached, leaving the half-eaten pigeon behind, surrounded by the tell-tale scattering of feathers.

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  • What's in your bonfire heap?

    Miranda Hodgson on 29 Oct 2010 at 02:33 PM

    Remember when farmers used to burn the stubble of the previous crop before the practice was regulated in 1993? This is an enduring memory of childhood, of something that is no more - going past in the car and seeing the fields all black and smouldering and the smoke drifting across the road. It was always exciting to see the line of fire as it crept across the field and when you saw the smoke on the horizon someone would always say ‘They’re burning the stubble’. Traditionally, a lot of burning goes on in autumn. Fallen leaves, plant debris, old wood, it all goes onto a big heap and is fired up.



    It was a popular event, where friends, family and neighbours gathered to watch the flames; potatoes and chestnuts would be placed amongst the glowing embers at the fire’s edge to slowly bake and be fumbled out with sticks, probably burnt on one side but still delicious; anyway, it was dark and you couldn’t really see the burnt bits in the orange glow of the flames, so they didn’t matter.

    Bonfires don’t occur in the number that they used to, and the smoke from stubble burning is a thing of the past, but every year a few heaps are made. Often they’re built in advance and when that happens, many of the local hedgehogs, frogs and toads must think ‘Cool, that looks like just the place for winter!’ and in they go and get comfortable.
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  • Parasitic wasp larvae take contol of caterpillar

    Miranda Hodgson on 22 Oct 2010 at 11:32 AM

    If you’re squeamish, look away now because the subject for this blog may be somewhat unpleasant. I’ve touched before on parasitic wasps (mainly of the species Aphidius) and how they lay their eggs in aphids, which develop inside the aphid and then chew their way out, just like in the film ‘Aliens’. I discovered that little gem after looking at a parasitised aphid through a small microscope and you could see the jagged exit hole. I wish I’d taken a photograph, but I didn’t, so this one of a parasitised aphid where the larva is yet to emerge will have to serve.



    Some time after seeing the parasitised aphid, I came across another type of parasitic wasp (Apanteles glomeratus), one that lays its eggs in caterpillars. Not just any old caterpillar either, but the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies. They are mainly seen in September and October, but you can still find a few about. Look out for what appears to be yellow, woolly fluff attached to an unmoving caterpillar and look closely. It isn’t fluff, it is the cocoons protecting the wasp larvae. What is even stranger is that the parasitised caterpillar actually helps out by staying close to the larvae and seeing off predators, until it finally dies of starvation.

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  • Watching the decay of the wasps’ nest

    Miranda Hodgson on 18 Oct 2010 at 02:00 PM

    Looking around to see what activity has been going on is one of my favourite things to do when I first arrive at the vegetable garden. I go round all the beds and stare at the vegetables and soil, count the holes where tunnels have been dug or where hoof prints have been left, analyse droppings to identify what left them (hedgehogs - hurrah!), have a quick scout through the hedgerow to find hollows in the grass at the base, where foxes or deer have bedded. As the leaves drop, old nests will gradually reveal themselves and once again I’ll see where the blackbird laid her eggs back in April and the space at the base of the wall where the pheasant made her nest and where the young ones left the nest before we saw them.


    The blackbird on her nest in Apri

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  • Is that a male or a female bee?

    Miranda Hodgson on 01 Oct 2010 at 01:20 PM

    There are still bees about, though their numbers grow fewer each week, as the temperature drops and now we have had a week of rain, which will surely further reduce the number seen. The asters are just still flowering and although they look pretty soggy right now, the bees are there as soon as the sun comes out.

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  • Wood wasps in the log pile

    Miranda Hodgson on 24 Sep 2010 at 02:45 PM

    I’m back after unscheduled break to have my appendix out last week. It certainly wasn’t on my timetable and I now have a short period of enforced idleness, whilst everything knits back together again. In hospital, I looked out of the window and watched pigeons bathing in a pool of water that had gathered in a depression on the flat roof of another hospital building. It was a sunny day and the water was quite shallow, so it might well have been a pleasantly warm bath.

    Back at home, I lay in bed for a day or so, until I got bored, and watched a small flock of blue tits and long tailed tits foraging together in the Magnolia tree outside the window. Their constant high-pitched ‘seep, seep, seep’ giving them away quite clearly when they weren’t visible.



    From there, I progressed to looking out of the living room window, where a mass of purple Asters is flowering and attracting the last of the season’s honey bees. Apparently, a family on the other side of the green from here keeps bees and, since there are always honey bees to be seen in the garden when almost any plant is flowering, I’m guessing that these bees have come foraging from there. They are a welcome sight, especially as autumn approaches and the season is winding down. The Asters are actually a bit of a nuisance, spreading with ease and vigour but, once I see honey bees crawling over the flowers with such energy, then I’m glad I haven’t dug them out.

    A sunny day lured me out into the courtyard and there I found my reward. A pile of old cherry logs sits to one side of the yard, kept back from when the big cherry tree had to be cut back last year. Sadly, this magnificent old tree is feeling the effects of age and it is dying; in a year or so, it will probably have to be cut down and we’ll no longer marvel at the spring blossom or admire its gnarled girth.

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  • A crayfish in the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 03 Sep 2010 at 11:40 AM

    Over the years that I’ve spent in gardens, I’ve come across all sorts of curious things – chocolate eggs, lost toys, hundreds of clay pipe stems, old bottles, fossils and oyster shells - but last week I made the oddest find to date. I was happily pruning a rambling rose that was trained against a lovely old Cotswold stone wall, when a flash of blue appeared amongst the foliage. The first thing that came to mind was a faded Hydrangea flower head, but there weren’t any Hydrangeas. Looking closer, I was astonished to find, hanging in the branches about 2m from the ground, a long-dead crayfish.



    I admit that I’m not especially familiar with crayfish, wildlife on dry land has always been more my area of interest. I’ve watched them scurrying about the bottom of a shallow stream in the Lake District and I’ve been served them once – I’d would rather not repeat that experience, it was one of the most fiddly and unrewarding meals I’ve ever had. Crayfish haven’t been part of my life, so to come across one dangling in a rambling rose was a considerable surprise.

    Back indoors, I set out upon the agreeable pursuit of looking things up and discovered that there is only one native crayfish in the UK, the freshwater white-clawed crayfish, Austropotamobius pallipes, which is increasingly threatened by an invasive American type, the signal crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus. The signal crayfish eats everything in its path and damages river banks by digging deep burrows which cause the river banks to collapse. Crayfish need lively-flowing streams and rivers to live in and it happens that there is a lively-flowing river running through this town, the river Windrush. I then discovered that signal crayfish have been found in the Windrush and that the many holes I’d seen in the banks are likely to have been dug by them. Comparing the shape, colour and markings of claw of the crayfish I found to the one shown here, I concluded that it is very probably a signal crayfish

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  • A white-headed blackbird and a lucky young toad

    Miranda Hodgson on 22 Aug 2010 at 05:14 PM

    Working in a garden the other day, I was surprised to see a white-headed blackbird (Turdus merula). I shouldn’t have been surprised, because blackbirds with white heads are not especially uncommon. This one was a male and looked very healthy, if a little peculiar. The yellow beak does look better next to black feathers rather than white ones.



    When blackbirds have white feathers, rather than being white all over, it’s referred to as leucism. All-white birds are albino.

    This autumn should be a good one for blackbirds, since almost every apple tree I’ve seen is so heavy with fruit that many branches reach the ground and the fallen fruit will provide a feast for blackbirds, as well as for other creatures like hedgehogs. If ever a blackbird could get fed up of apples, then this year might be the one for that to happen.

    In the vegetable garden, the frogs and toads continue to make us jump as we come across them sheltering under plants or in the ground. Digging up potatoes the other day, revealed a young toad (Bufo bufo) hiding beneath the moist soil - it was lucky to avoid the tines of the fork and be carefully relocated to the other side of the garden, by the pond, where no digging is carried out. Before we moved it, we paused to admire its beautiful eyes which were a rich reddish-brown and looked very much like polished red Tiger’s Eye gem stones. 

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  • Young wrens in the garden, ladybird hiding places and we bid farewell to the wasps

    Miranda Hodgson on 16 Aug 2010 at 11:25 AM

    Sitting in the living room the other day, I heard a loud and insistent cheeping through the window that looks on to the courtyard. It sounded close, so I got up to look; there, in the branches of the little witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) just outside, two baby wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) were hopping up and down a stem, whilst a parent bird was feeding them as fast as it could with spiders and flies. From the witch hazel, they moved to a potted Acer, then back to the witch hazel, down to the ground and through the border that runs along the path to the door. Back and forth between the plants, under and over the garden bench, moving so fast and cheeping non-stop. In the kitchen later on, I heard the same cheeping coming from the garden and saw them in the big magnolia tree. This went on for a week and then suddenly stopped, so I’m guessing that the young wrens can now feed themselves. They’re fascinating little birds - tiny, fast and generally secretive and yet they will sing more boldly and with more volume than almost any other song bird. I hope they stay around.



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  • Young robins and a quiet wasps' nest - summer is ending

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Aug 2010 at 01:12 PM

    The robins (Erithacus rubecula) have starting singing again and I heard the first sweet song a few nights ago, though I could not pinpoint the singer, as it was hidden in a cherry tree. Robins sing all year round but, like other birds, they go quiet during the summer moult because they can’t fly as well and sensibly don’t want to draw a lot of attention to themselves. For some reason, wrens keep singing. At least they do round here. It’s good to hear them again. I’ve missed the song of my favourite birds and it’s very cheering to see young robins in the garden, too, watching as we turn the soil and flitting down to pick up insects, grubs and worms.



    We were joined the other day by a juvenile, which still had some camouflaging speckled feathers and it was quite as bold as an adult. I first noticed it looking at us from a nearby Pyracantha and it then edged a little closer, onto the roof of a nesting box and finally came to stand at the edge of the area that we were digging over, occasionally stretching its body upwards to show its remarkably skinny legs. I’ve never understood how robins can get by with such thin legs - they don’t look thick enough to support the body. Anyway, this one paid close attention and was rewarded several times for its vigilance, though I didn’t identify what was picked up, except for a worm

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  • Grasshoppers in summer and a change in the world of wasps

    Miranda Hodgson on 23 Jul 2010 at 02:17 PM

    One of the loveliest experiences of high summer is to stand in the vegetable garden, listening to the chirping of grasshoppers. Just now, at any time of the day, the air is soft and warm, so you never need think about shivering or covering up – that’s all months away - you can just stand there for as long as you want, wallowing in the luxury of standing still outdoors in the UK and not feeling cold, whilst you listen to the grasshoppers. It’s one of those timeless, perfect moments of summer, one that humans must have been enjoying since time began.



    The grasshoppers I’ve been hearing are mainly common field grasshoppers (Chorthippus brunneus) and they live amongst the long grass that we leave to grow around the edge of the garden and come to jump amongst the vegetables. They first appeared in the garden in June and we’ll be hearing them for the rest of summer as the males chirp their rivalry songs at one another. Common field grasshoppers eat mostly grass, unlike crickets which will eat almost anything, so we’re not concerned about them and can simply enjoy them.

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  • Ladybird larvae come to the rescue

    Miranda Hodgson on 12 Jul 2010 at 09:35 AM

    Thousands of aphids have suddenly appeared in Oxfordshire. I can squish them, blast them with a jet of water from the hose or spray them. I don’t like spraying because it harms the beneficial insects as well as the pests, so generally squish or blast. As luck would have it, this year the predators have arrived at roughly the same time as the aphids and are saving me having to do much myself. They have come in the form of ladybird larvae. These are about 1cm long, though smaller when young, and have dark grey, segmented bodies with some orange spots down each side. They don’t look like ladybirds at all and can be seen in such large numbers that they could easily be mistaken for a pest themselves.



    Along with ladybird larvae, the larvae of hoverflies and lacewings will also eat aphids. During a ladybird’s year of life, it can eat up to 5,000 aphids which makes them a welcome guest. Several parasitic wasps kill aphids, too, by laying their eggs in the aphids themselves. Looking at the underside of leaves affected by aphids, you may see a tiny, bloated, slightly metallic insect which never moves. This unfortunate creature has had an egg laid in its body by a parasitic wasp. Get a magnifying glass and keep an eye on it; in a couple of weeks, the new wasp will chew its way out, in a similar way to the monsters in the film ‘Alien’. I’ve wondered if that’s where they got the idea for that film, actually.

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  • Apples for blackbirds and an update on the wasps

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Jul 2010 at 10:01 AM

    I keep bits of food in my gardening bag – apples, cereal bars, biscuits – and they mingle with the tools. Accidents happen; one of the apples got speared on the little gardening fork, a fork covered in soil. It had also been bruised and didn’t look very appetising anymore, so I cut it in half and put it out for the blackbirds (Turdus merula).

     

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  • Watching wasps build a nest

    Miranda Hodgson on 28 Jun 2010 at 09:18 AM

    I’ve been watching wasps building a nest. I first noticed them when I saw them buzzing in and out of a hole in the shed by the vegetable garden. Looking inside, I saw the nest being built and reckoned they had already been building it for some days. This is how it looked on the 5th of June. The wasp on the right was busy adding new material, chewed up wood mixed with saliva, and you can see that the mixture is still wet.



    Five days later it had grown, with new layers having been added, and there were more wasps to be seen.

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  • The grass snakes are back!

    Miranda Hodgson on 21 Jun 2010 at 11:52 AM

    We came across grass snakes (Natrix natrix) regularly up at the vegetable garden this time last year and have been looking out for them again. We first knew that there were grass snakes about when I found one curled up in a compost bin a couple of years ago and then, last year, we found a discarded skin in one of the big compost heaps. We also saw them lounging in the sunshine on top of the compost, or at the doorways to their nests. Like lords of the manor, they were, spending their time sunbathing whilst we sweated in the garden.


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  • An empty pheasant nest and looking at lily beetle larvae

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Jun 2010 at 11:12 AM

    When I last wrote, the pheasant was still on the nest and we were eagerly awaiting the first sight of the chicks. That weekend, there was a big wedding celebration in the field next to the vegetable garden and we decided to stay away. Typically, when we went to the garden again, only a day later, the nest was empty with no pheasant and no chicks to be seen.



    It’s difficult to say if all the chicks hatched and some of the shells were trampled in the process, or if some were predated but, as there were only a few broken shells left in the nest, it seems clear that most of them got away. A neighbour said she had spotted a pheasant with chicks in a nearby lane, so maybe that was them.

    Back in the ornamental garden and the lily beetles (Lilioceris lilii) are doing their work. Both the adults and the larvae eat the foliage of lily plants, as well as Cardiocrinum and fritillaries, and can chew through the lot in a short time. The bright red adults are easy to spot, though not easy to catch because they drop off the leaf as soon as you touch the plant. I’ve found it easiest to hold a trowel under the leaf and catch them in that. Then I squash them or, depending on how squeamish I feel, put them in the green composting bin and shut the lid.

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  • Nearly time for the pheasant eggs to hatch

    Miranda Hodgson on 22 May 2010 at 10:29 AM

    The pheasant at the vegetable garden is now completely hidden by nettles which have grown up around her nest. Every so often I’ll have a quick peek to make sure she’s still on the nest, but the dappled colouring of her feathers is barely visible under the surrounding foliage and it’s only because I know what to look for that I can make out the dark spots of her plumage.



    Sometimes she gets up for a walk and we see her head poking out from behind the compost bays before she makes a dash for the cover of an apple tree, and from there to the raspberries, before stealthily working her way over to the pond. After she’s had a drink and something to eat, we might spot her in the long grass of a wild part of the garden as she makes her way back to the nest.

    Surely the day is approaching when the eggs will hatch. We first spotted the eggs on the 23rd of April, when we counted nine. A few days later there were 13 of them and as the incubation period is between 23 and 27 days we should soon start to hear the young birds. I’m looking forward to it because I’ve never seen a newly hatched pheasant before and my friend John Davison tells me that they look rather like big bumblebees. Thirteen big bumblebees in a nest sounds like a fine sight.

    In the meantime, I was working in a garden the other day and came across another quite different type of egg. Scrabbling at the base of an Iris foetidissima, I found a metallic green egg left over from an Easter egg hunt, back at the start of April. It suddenly occurred to me that I’d never been on an Easter egg hunt before, so finding this foil-wrapped treasure was a first. 

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  • We have newts!

    Miranda Hodgson on 14 May 2010 at 02:31 PM

    Yesterday we got up to the vegetable garden for a couple of hours, intending to move the big pile of compost that had been shovelled onto a big sheet of plastic when we emptied the compost bay. As we find so many creatures in that garden, before moving the plastic, we pulled it back to see what was underneath. I expected worms, woodlice, slugs, snails and maybe a toad or a frog, so it was a real delight to see a teeny, tiny little newt.



    It was so small, 5cm (2 inches) at the longest, that it would have been very easy to miss and it was only the elegant curve of its tail which gave it away. As it was so very little, it was difficult to say what type it was, but I’m guessing that it was a smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris). I’m also guessing that it may have over wintered in its larval state and only left the water this spring. This one appeared to be shedding its skin, which it will do about once a week whilst it is growing

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  • Young birds are out and about in the garden

    Miranda Hodgson on 07 May 2010 at 03:24 PM

    The vegetable garden is filled with the calls of young birds. Around the edges of the garden, the shrubs and hedgerow plants became first nesting sites and then nurseries for blackbirds, robins, tits, finches and a single pheasant, currently tucked up amongst some nettles, next to the boundary wall. The pheasant is very close to the compost bays and we often pass by, but we pretend we don’t see one another and she stays put.


    The pheasant, pretending I'm not ther

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  • Finding toads in the vegetable beds

    Miranda Hodgson on 30 Apr 2010 at 03:33 PM

    Before saying anything about the toad, I was interested to note that several people have told me that they’ve seen bee flies about since I wrote about them last week and some said that they’d thought, at first, that they were seeing actual bees, rather than a mimic. I’ve been looking out for them and have seen another half a dozen or so.



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  • Is that a bee?

    Miranda Hodgson on 23 Apr 2010 at 04:20 PM

    The sound of buzzing is more noticeable every day, as increasing numbers of flying insects take to the air, going about their business of finding food, mating and building nests. Up at the garden I saw what at first sight looked very much like a small bee. Only it wasn’t a bee at all, but a fly that pretends it’s a bee – the bee fly, Bombylius major.


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  • Bumblebees are nesting in the wall

    Miranda Hodgson on 19 Apr 2010 at 11:51 AM

    Climbing through the window into the garden the other day, I was struck by the sound of buzzing and stopped to listen. Much of it was coming from bees crawling over the rosemary flowers, whilst other bees were visiting the (unfortunately) Spanish bluebells which are popping up all around the greenhouse. The bees were a mix of wild honey bees and various types of bumblebee.


    I think this is a male Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum Read More...

  • Spring is really here and the birds are nesting

    Miranda Hodgson on 09 Apr 2010 at 02:04 PM

    Spring is a dream come true - a dream of warmth, new growth, and flowers. How fortunate I am that something so longed for becomes reality each year. I love this season so much and every year the anticipation of the land coming back to life is met by the intense pleasure of seeing it truly happening, first so slowly that you hardly notice and then ramping up speed until the land quivers with new life.



    In the garden, the first empty egg shell was dropped onto the lawn by a pigeon. Birds do this to draw attention of predators away from the location of their nestlings and you’ll see the empty shells in many places. Look out for the pale blue shells of blackbird eggs – blackbirds are nesting now and the young will be hatching during the coming weeks. Once the young birds leave the nest, you’ll see them crouching in shrubs, tailless and petulant-looking, waiting for a parent to bring them food. Once their tails have grown, they’ll be able to fly properly and can then fend for themselves.

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  • Long-tailed tits tapping at windows

    Miranda Hodgson on 30 Mar 2010 at 12:32 PM

    I had an interesting email from my father the other day. He said, ‘For the past few days flocks of long-tailed tits have been coming to the fat balls (more primly known as ‘suet treats’) hanging in our garden. From time to time one or two will leave the group and start tapping on the windows, upsetting the cat no end. Why do you think they do this? My theory is that they catch sight of their reflection in the glass and think it's another tit, but it's never happened in past years. But then again, there are far more LTTs this year than before, perhaps because we've never had fat balls (or suet treats) before.’

     

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  • Beware of the mouse – if you’re sowing peas and beans, that is

    Miranda Hodgson on 21 Mar 2010 at 11:31 AM

    Packets of peas and beans generally come with instructions to sow them in the ground where they are to grow. It sounds good enough, but it puzzles me because the instructions don’t take into account a certain small mammal, the mouse - Apodemus sylvaticus.



    Field mouse, wood mouse, call them what you will, but they love peas and beans and can sniff them out as fast as you sow them. They love sweet corn, too, and will neatly lift every carefully sown kernel, leaving barely a trace of their foraging. For this reason, I prefer to sow into trays and then keep them on metal racks that mice can’t climb up, until they have put out at least one set of leaves and can be safely put outside. I could, of course, trap and kill them, and many gardeners do, but I choose not to.

    Mice are mostly nocturnal, so you don’t often see them, but they leave signs of their presence. If you have seed or berry producing trees nearby, like cherry or holly, it’s likely that a mouse will gather the seed and store it somewhere, to be eaten later; the corner of a dry garage is a favourite spot. The inside of a wood pile is a good storage area too – in ours we find many cherry stones. Once, I even found a disused bird’s nest piled high with holly berries

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  • Frogs returning to garden ponds herald the start of spring

    Miranda Hodgson on 16 Mar 2010 at 11:58 AM

    Now that the long winter is finally coming to an end, frogs (Rana temporaria) are making their way to garden ponds to mate. They’re late this year, only just gathering for their annual frolic. In 2005, on March the 17th, they had already spawned and could be seen floating protectively over the clumps of gelatinous eggs but, this year, on Sunday the 14th of March, they hadn’t yet entered the state known as amplexus, when the males clasp the females and the frenzy of breeding begins.


    One of the 2005 frog

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  • Finding treasure in the compost heap, spring ladybirds and early bees

    Miranda Hodgson on 05 Mar 2010 at 12:55 PM


    With the key to the garden door now in my possession, I made my first proper foray into the garden this week. For some time before taking on this garden, I’d had my eye on the big compost heap against the north facing wall. Whilst it is hidden from the big house, I can see it from the kitchen window and have wondered for many months what it contains, so it was with a sense of both satisfaction and anticipation that I approached it, fork at the ready. The top layer was made up of grass cuttings and I dreaded finding a heap of smelly, anaerobic sludge, but underneath this top layer was a mix of grass cuttings and the prunings of perennial border plants and, much to my pleasure, a great many worms.



    These are compost worms, of the Eisenia species, and they are busy breaking down the heap into usable compost, so their presence is very welcome; I hope to find some ready to use compost further down. On putting my fork to soil in the borders, I have my fingers crossed that I’ll find plenty of worms there too (these will be Lumbricus rubellus, which prefer to live in soil rather than compost heaps, pulling plant debris beneath the soil). There is certainly enough organic matter on the surface to keep them happy!

    Walking along the long border and looking at the rather bedraggled remains of last year’s perennials, I spotted the first ladybirds of spring, warming themselves in the sun; they are very welcome too as they and their larvae will help to keep the garden clear of aphids.

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  • A window opens to a garden full of birds

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Feb 2010 at 04:59 PM

    We have been offered the use of the walled garden outside our kitchen window. This is in addition to the large courtyard we already use and the garden, on a nearby farm, where we grow vegetables.


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  • Woodpeckers find a louder drum

    Miranda Hodgson on 19 Feb 2010 at 04:09 PM

    Up at the garden this week, we heard the sound of a male Great Spotted Woodpecker hammering its beak against a tree. They do this to announce their presence in the area and can batter against a tree trunk up to 40 times a second, which makes you wonder why they don’t get headaches. If we did that, our brains would swirl around inside our skulls and we would soon be unconscious and, even if we weren’t unconscious, then we’d probably be very uncomfortable and no doubt quite cross as well. Fortunately, nature has provided woodpeckers with an efficient shock absorbing system, which means that their brains are able to absorb the blows, avoiding concussion, so allowing them to hammer away as much as they want to.

    There are plenty of trees around the garden for the woodpeckers to hammer against, but some woodpeckers have discovered that they can make a louder drumming by using telegraph poles instead of trees. I first discovered this several years ago, when I was wakened at first light by the sound of the bedroom radiator vibrating. This happened on several mornings during the next couple of weeks and, initially, I was mystified at what could be causing it.
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  • Amazing woodlice

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Feb 2010 at 05:19 PM

    What better way to recuperate after minor surgery than a spot of light gardening and wildlife watching. Fresh air, sunshine and gentle exercise certainly take your mind off things; you end up feeling incredibly virtuous and may even pick up new knowledge along the way. So it was that, after a day’s garden pottering, I discovered on returning home that, according to the Natural History Museum, the UK has some 37 species of woodlouse. In all, there are over 3,000 species and some of them even live in the sea. Bet you didn’t know that.



    Anyway, it was after helping someone to remove a clump of pampas grass (actually, all I did was cut back the foliage) that I looked down into the hole left after rolling the root ball out of the way and saw an especially large and fine looking woodlouse. It was one of the biggest I’d ever seen and, unlike many other woodlice I’ve come across, this one had a pale fringe around its shell and spots of the same colour along the length of its body. It was beautiful, a tiny living work of art.

    The ground here was damp and shady – not a good place for a pampas grass and the plant wasn’t thriving; in fact, half of it was rotting and quite smelly, so it wasn’t surprising that woodlice had set up house there.

    They breathe through gills, so a soggy, rotting plant would be ideal. I thought back to other woodlice I’ve seen and dug out a picture taken a few years before of a smaller, brown one that I’d seen in a compost bin, which had appeared to be in discussion with a slug. They were quite different.

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  • Lily the bear and frisky pigeons

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Jan 2010 at 05:19 PM

    This last week, I’ve been distracted from paying attention to the wildlife in my garden by wildlife of a very different sort, from the US. An article in the paper prompted me to look at a webcam, which has been set up in the den of a pregnant wild black bear, called Lily, who lives in the currently frozen wilds of Minnesota. Lily was about to give birth and I found myself gripped with fascination and suspense, staying up well past my bed time for more than one night, until she gave birth to her first cub. Imagine having bears on the doorstep! It’s just as well I don’t live in the US or I’d probably never go anywhere except the forest.

    Here in the UK, the snow and ice melted long ago (at least a week) and although more cold weather is forecast, the birds have reacted to the increase in warmth and the hedgerows have been filled with songs and cooings. It’s a welcome change from the silence of the freezing weather, when most birds hadn’t the energy to spare for singing.

    Anticipating the coming of spring, first off the blocks are the wood pigeons. It’s easy to tell when pigeons are thinking about mating because they’re so obvious about it. I’ve seen them in the courtyard this week, one following the other, with the following bird continually bobbing its head in an attempt to allure its mate. Then, there is the increase in cooing, which is another give away.

     

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  • Melting snow, aggressive blackbirds and home-made fat balls

    Miranda Hodgson on 15 Jan 2010 at 03:02 PM

    After weeks of freezing temperatures, the weather is finally starting to thaw and the small birds, who had been absent from the courtyard at home for a worrying length of time, are returning, as shown by the increased number of little foot prints and feather marks in the snow.



    Chaffinches, bluetits, great tits and dunnocks are all coming in again and it’s a relief to see them and know for sure that they’re getting plenty to eat and drink. They will probably need a good bit of feeding up to regain the lost energy, so they are good and ready for mating when spring arrives

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  • Feed the birds

    Miranda Hodgson on 08 Jan 2010 at 12:45 PM

    The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has issued a statement in The Independent saying that the UK’s birds are facing an emergency as the freezing temperatures show no sign of rising yet and will soon start to take a toll. The bird’s natural food is covered with snow and much of the water they need is frozen, so if they’re going to make it till the weather warms up, they need help from us.



    In Oxfordshire, we woke up on Wednesday to 15cm (6 inches) of snow which had blown into drifts 30cm (12 inches) deep. The bird’s water dish was both frozen and buried, as was the food I had put out the day before. I dug out the dish and refilled it only to find that the method I used to stop it freezing, of sinking the dish into a pot of dry compost, didn’t work any more and it froze over again within a couple of hours. Once surrounded by snow, however, it isn't freezing as quickly.
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  • Ice, snow and the caterpillar's progress

    Miranda Hodgson on 03 Jan 2010 at 04:32 PM

    It’s the same every day at the moment. The first job of the morning is to put out bird food, dump the half an inch of ice in their water dish and refill it. There is a growing pile of ice next to the dish and it doesn’t look like melting any time soon, but the cold weather doesn’t stop the birds from bathing. Imagine it - bathing outside, during mid-winter, in cold water. It may not seem quite rational to us, but the birds need to bathe to keep their feathers in good condition, so winter baths are vital.



    If you want to get fancy, you can buy thermostatically controlled water heaters for bird baths, but there are other, cheaper methods. A small ball floating on the surface of the water helps some of it stay ice-free, as does a night-light candle under the bath (which needs to be protected from breezes). Here, I sit the bath in the top of a black plastic pot of insulating compost. It still freezes during the night, but stays ice-free in the day time.

    While other parts of the country have had impressive falls of snow, in Oxfordshire we have had the merest dusting, less than the sprinkling of icing sugar you’d get on a sponge cake, so we took pleasure in visiting family in Lincolnshire for Christmas, where they’d had proper snow. The snow in the garden was untrodden by humans, until I got there anyway, but on going to look around, I saw the tracks of both cats and rabbits and noticed that the rabbits used the same well-trodden (or hopped?) routes, while the cats’ tracks showed that they tended to wander about more.

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  • I found a caterpillar in the bath on Monday

    Miranda Hodgson on 23 Dec 2009 at 04:16 PM

    I went into the bathroom on Monday morning and saw a pink caterpillar in the bath. It was brownish-pink, about 2.5cm long and had a few sparse hairs. It’s been so cold just recently that we haven’t had the bathroom window open as often as usual, but it must have come in that way. 



    What was it? Searching on moth and butterfly caterpillar images brought no firm results, so I asked for help on a couple of forums, but it wasn’t recognised on those either. One person suggested that it might have arrived on some imported vegetables, which made sense, but we either grow our own or try to get local stuff. Someone else thought maybe it had been dropped by a bird, but if I was a bird at this time of year and found a caterpillar, it wouldn’t have time to find its way into the bath, I’d have eaten it straight away.

    It would be useful to get some photographs, so I went to get the caterpillar out of the bath, only to find that it had disappeared; it was eventually discovered tucked against the base of the toilet. I put it into a plastic tub and gave it a selection of leaves to see what was acceptable, as some caterpillars prefer to stick to one plant for their food - a leaf from an over-wintering chilli plant, a bit of cabbage and some pak choi. The cabbage proved most popular.

    After looking at just about every wildlife gallery I could find, I posted the question on the RHS forum and was very pleased to discover that a kind person had given me the answer. My caterpillar will become an Angle Shade moth, Phlogophora meticulosa. It was a surprise to discover that these caterpillars are active during winter as well as the rest of the year. Why don’t they freeze?

    The RHS and Wikipedia information pages say that it will eat a wide range of foliage and flowers and can do a lot of damage. I have two choices: put it out for the birds or continue to feed it and encourage it to pupate. If it does pupate, then I can put the chrysalis in a place where the newly hatched moth will find non-garden plants to feed from. The second choice is my preferred one, so I shall put out extra bird food to make up for keeping the caterpillar to myself

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  • What does your robin get up to?

    Miranda Hodgson on 18 Dec 2009 at 04:53 PM

    Since posting the last blog, a few people have told me robin stories, short anecdotes about the robins they see in their gardens and the local area. They nearly all concern the boldness of these small birds.


    A robin inspecting the greenhous

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  • Our supervisor, the robin

    Miranda Hodgson on 13 Dec 2009 at 03:03 PM

    It never takes long for a robin to appear when you’re digging. Yesterday, as usual, the robin who holds the territory at our garden was aware of our presence as soon as we arrived and came to see what we were doing.



    When we walk through the garden gate, the robin will be right there, as if on cue, watching from a short distance – it will appear in the apple tree, the damson tree, or sitting on the edge of the compost bay and from that point, until we leave, our tiny supervisor will seldom move out of sight. I should be glad that they can’t issue orders, so closely do they watch.

    Yesterday it accompanied us the whole day, flitting down from its perch to inspect each newly dug patch of soil, picking up the worms that our spades brought to the surface. At one point, it even posed for a photograph. I like to think it had a full belly by the time dusk arrived and we put away our tools.

    I have read that at one time robins would follow wild boar about the forests of the UK, waiting for them to unearth worms and grubs. These days, it is humans that they follow, instead, so I suppose that we might consider ourselves as substitutes for wild boar. Now there's a thought.

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  • Looking at the gaps in an old stone wall

    Miranda Hodgson on 11 Dec 2009 at 03:40 PM

    On the coast of Cornwall, there is a place of sea, rocks and sand called Polzeath. When the tide goes out, the rocks are revealed and if you peer into one of the crevices, you are likely to see a fish tucked away at the back in a puddle of water, waiting for the tide to come back in. It’s a strange and wonderful sight.



    Living inland, I don’t get to see that sort of thing very often, but we are lucky enough to have an old stone wall that divides us from our neighbours and it is also full of gaps, so I can peer into those instead.

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  • Oh no, we've got Muntjacs in the garden!

    Miranda Hodgson on 04 Dec 2009 at 01:03 PM

    Sharing the garden with other species is generally a pleasure – birds sing, frogs jump - and sometimes make us jump when they do it - and the hedgehogs rustle through the undergrowth. Worms and beetles working alongside countless other creatures are turning the soil and mixing in the layers of material put down on the surface.


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  • A closer look at the log pile

    Miranda Hodgson on 27 Nov 2009 at 01:00 PM

    As you make your way to the new compost heaps at the garden, you pass a big pile of logs next to a hedge. There are several log piles nearby, but this particular pile is the one I go to, because it’s so convenient, whilst the next one along is surrounded by tall nettles. The pile attracts, amongst other things, woodlice, spiders, small flies and beetles. At the base, mice, frogs and toads dig themselves burrows to shelter in.


    The log pil

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  • Sounds like a good excuse to me!

    Miranda Hodgson on 20 Nov 2009 at 02:44 PM

    The slabs in the courtyard have gaps between them and those gaps have become home to a variety of self sown plants. We have the usual tufts of grass coming up, but there are also chives, pansies, a mat-forming Sedum, which I believe is Sedum acre and, of course, dandelions.



    I’d been thinking about the growth between those gaps and reckoned that it was probably time for a bit of selective weeding. I can’t bring myself to pull it all out because if there are flowers, then some species will be using them for food, so I pick and choose. Cut the grassy bits back, leave the pansies and chives to flower, cut back the dandelions before they go to seed and pull out that invasive Oxalis corniculata before it tries to take over the world.

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  • Under the autumn leaves

    Miranda Hodgson on 14 Nov 2009 at 11:16 AM

    Strong winds this weekend will probably bring down the last of the leaves from the big lime trees at the back of the courtyard and distribute them in a thick layer over the plants. They will need to be carefully pulled out so the plants aren’t smothered.

     

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  • A winter larder for bees

    Miranda Hodgson on 10 Nov 2009 at 10:33 PM

    The days are shortening so rapidly now, darkness seeping into the sky a little earlier each day. Only two weeks ago, the air still felt warm and it seemed that autumn could last for many weeks to come, but now, with the arrival of the short days, it truly feels that the first days of winter are with us.

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