One of my favourite spring flowers, the Wood Anemone, introduced to the garden a few years ago, is well out now. In the wild they are an indicator species for ancient woodland but sadly they are getting less common as less woodland is being managed as coppice. As well as their beautiful white flowers, sometimes with lilac tints, they are a good early food source for many insects, especially hoverflies which in turn are so good at eating aphids. Wood Anemones spread by underground rhizomes so once you have a few you can easily dig up some roots and transplant them into a shady, damp part of the garden, even in the shade of buildings. Wood Anemones are also known as ‘Moonflower’ and ‘Smell-fox’ (because the leaves smell musky, apparently!). They hang their heads in dull weather, only to straighten their stems and face skyward like hundreds of stars, when the weather brightens. The flower segments are tepals, not petals and vary in number from 6-8 or, rarely, up to 10.
Wood Anemone, head hanging down in dull weather.
Wood Anemones, face up to the sun, above the dark green leaves. Some with 6 and some 7 tepals.
Doing the annual clean of the ponds, a few Smooth (or Common) Newts came up with the mud. Adult Newts only spend time in the water for breeding, coming out of hibernation from deep in mud, under stones or logs etc in February or March, to mate from March to May. Smooth Newts are the most common of our three native Newt species (all of which are legally protected), and find their way to shallow ponds and rivers at this time of year, able to detect water from a distance away. Smooth Newts are the most terrestrial- the rest of the year they help keep the population of slugs and snails down. All our native Newts are nocturnal and are best seen by using a bright torch – at this time of year you may see courtship behaviour this way. Male and female Smooth Newts are hard to tell apart most of the year but during the breeding season males become much darker than females, and develop a wavy crest from head to tail. These newts easily found their way back to the pond after being fished out in the spring clean-up. Conditions: High cloud and haze, dry, cooler. Temperature: Max 15- Min 7c
Male Smooth Newt
Adult Smooth Newt
Smooth Newt, showing it’s dark spots and yellow/orange belly.
The most widespread duck in the world is the Mallard, which probably explains why we even get them occasionally on our tiny ponds in the garden. Today a pair of these dabbling ducks spent ages on our neighbours pond and grass. One reason for the Mallard’s success is it’s flexible feeding habits- they can eat invertebrates, worms, tubers, roots, plants and seeds. Mallard form pairs as early as October or November and stay together until the females begin to lay their eggs, when the males go off together and live in a ‘men’s group’, leaving the females to bring up the young. Nesting time is stressful for the female because she lays more than half her body weight in eggs! The nesting place is away from ground-predators, often up high. Chicks can swim as soon as they are born, and if you’re lucky you may see the big broods dropping several feel from a nest in a tree or bank, without coming to harm.
. Conditions: High cloud and cool start becoming very warm with some sun. Temperature: Max 16- Min 8c
Today it was the female Goldfinch gathering feathers, showing it must be well on it’s way to finishing it’s nest. The male was following it round the garden but only the female Goldfinch collects the grass and lichen and builds, firstly a cup-shaped nest structure, which it then lines with down, wool or thistle-down etc. The nest is usually on a tree-branch or in a hedge or open bush. The female incubates the eggs on her own too, but both birds feed the young. Like the Long Tailed Tit the other day, the Goldfinch got as many feathers as it could find into it’s beak before flying off. If you have some moss, wool, hair or feathers you can put them in a netting-bag, wire feeder or just on the ground and have fun watching a range of birds gathering materials, as well as getting a rough idea of their nest-sites by watching where they fly when their beaks are full. Conditions: A little warmer, mostly cloudy and dry. Temperature: Max 10- Min 5c
Female Goldfinch, showing the beautiful black and white wing-markings.
Female Goldfinch gathering a beak-full of down.
A House Fly is not most people’s favourite spring sighting, but they are fascinating, and are one of the most widespread insects in the World. House Flies are Diptera– two winged- their second pair being reduced to stabilisers behind the pair of functioning wings. They can carry up to 100 different diseases and reproduce really fast in ideal conditions. In fact scientists (those with too much time on their hands one presumes) have calculated that if a pair of house flies started laying eggs in perfect conditions in April, and all their offspring and subsequent offspring survived, they would have been responsible for the birth of 191,010,000,000,000,000,000 flies by August (a number I don’t even know how to say). Fortunately, they don’t all survive! One of the special things about House Flies is their eyes, which are compound organs made upon thousands of individual lenses, able to see polarised light and parts of the colour spectrum we can’t see. They can detect the slightest movement in a very wide field of vision- which is why they are so hard to swat! Conditions: Cold northerly breeze, heavy rain showers and cloud. Temperature: Max 8- Min 5c.
A House Fly
Close-up of the eyes of a House Fly and it’s mouthparts
Some flowers, like these lovely Violas, have very obvious ‘nectar-guides’ or ‘pollen-guides’ to help bees and insects make a bee-line to their nectar. The lines act like markings on a landing strip, indicating the path to the nectar. Having tempted the insects to the centre of the flower, the insects get covered with strategically placed pollen and generally carry that pollen onto another flower of the same species. The insects get energy and essential water from the nectar, and the plant gets to reproduce. Flowers can also use scent and colour to attract pollinators. However, insects see the blue end of the colour spectrum better than us, and see ultra violet light we can’t see, and many flowers reveal nectar guides to bees and insects when appearing single-coloured to us. Examples include many yellow flowers, like dandelions and sunflowers.
Nectar Guides on a garden Viola.
Cultivated Viola with Nectar Guides visible.
(Incidentally, so-called Blue-Whitener washing powders use a type of ultra-violet substance we can just see, which is why they appear ‘whiter-than-white’ to our eyes!). Conditions: Very gentle northerly breeze, cloud, hail and rain developing. Temperature: Max 6- Min 3c
Dandelion, now out, have nectar guides invisible to humans.
STOP PRESS: 3 eggs for the Sheffield Peregrines tonight. I mentioned in January that I would come back to the mating behaviour of the Dunnock, and since there are regularly 3 Dunnock showing mating displays in the back garden, this seems like a good time to do so. Unusual in birds, Dunnock are polyandrous, meaning that the chicks within one brood often have different fathers. This has been proved by DNA fingerprinting. A female can mate many times in a day with different males, and those males often stay to provide care for the young in direct proportion to their mating success, so two males often join the female to feed the young of the same brood. I assume that two of the three Dunnock shown are males. They flutter their wings and sing their lovely delicate song to attract the female, as can be seen in the photographs. When built, their nests are fairly easy to locate in hedges or shrubs, so it’s worth keeping an eye open to see where they regularly fly, when it’s time to nest. Conditions: Cool, cloudy with showers and a gentle easterly breeze. Temperature: Max 7- Min 3c
Dunnock- fast wing-fluttering is part of their mating behaviour
Dunnock- 1 of 3 regularly together
Dunnock singing -part of it’s mating behaviour
At this time of year, Blackthorn (Sloe) Blossom can be seen along many hedgerows and in scrubland areas. The creamy flowers come out in March, before the leaves are out. They show bright against the dense tangle of often sooty-coloured twigs and branches which give it it’s name. (In contrast, in earlier times the Hawthorn or May, which comes out later, was called Whitethorn.) As can be seen, the thorns are long and strong and the shrub grows so densely it is a very effective hedge. Blackthorn, which bears sloes in autumn, is in the prunus family and is the native ancestor of the plum. It’s wood is hard and good for fires, being slow-burning. Blackthorn wood was used for making canes, cudgels and tool-handles. It was also turned to make bowls. Blackthorn is great for insects, with it’s early nectar, especially favoured by hoverflies and bees, while the leaves support many species of moths and butterflies– in fact around 150 species of insects use the Blackthorn. Conditions: Cool and sunny day, beginning with a frost. Temperature: Max 9- Min 5c
Blackthorn Blossom showing the long stamens
Blackthorn Blossom showing a thorny twig.
Male adult Siskin feeding female adult
Mating behaviour is continuing. Yesterday I watched an adult male Robin feeding a female and today it was the turn of the Siskins. This behaviour is thought to enhance bonding and offer proof of foraging ability to the female. The Siskins were also gathering nesting material. I’ve never seen Siskins staying to nest here before. They usually just come in for winter feeding. Conditions: A chilly day with sunshine giving way to hail and thunder. Temperature: Max 7- Min 0c
Stormy sunset tonight.
Siskin gathering nesting material
The Wren is a frequent visitor to our garden. This is not surprising since, although speedy and difficult to spot, the Wren is the most common species of bird in the UK, with 8,600,000 pairs breeding each year. It has the fascinating Latin name ‘Troglodytes Troglodytes’ and the collective name for wrens is a ‘chime’. Although tiny, they have a wonderful and very loud song which is often the first indication they are around. They sing, especially at dawn, to hold their territories against other males.- worth listening to on the RSPB site.They can be found roosting together in big numbers to keep warm in winter. However, due to their small size and their reliance on spiders and insects for food, many die in severe winters. Populations recover quickly, having 2 clutches of 5-8 eggs per year. They make beautiful globe-shaped nests of grass and moss, lined with feathers. Conditions: Sun and heavy showers, with cool winds. Temperature: Max 8- Min 3c
This Wren had just washed in the pond and was drying off on a bench.