Slow-worms in Sussex- It is many years since I have seen several Slow-worms in one place so this is a treat. Neither worms nor snakes, these harmless, legless Lizards are actually really good for the garden, eating many invertebrates. Found all over the UK except the Scottish Islands, they like gardens, allotments, heathland and woodland edges. They can be predated by cats though- and by Hedgehogs and Badgers (strange because these are very near Badgers). They hibernate from October to March, and hide up under stones, logs or sheets of wood or tin and, being ‘crepuscular’, come out at dusk to feed. They have two defences against being predated- they defecate a foul smelling fluid when caught and, like our other Lizards they cast off their tails which wiggle for a while to distract the predator while the Slow-worm wriggles off to hide and regrow its tail! These are females, which are bigger (up to 30cm), and have dark sides and a dark stripe down their back. If I find a male I’ll post it another day! Conditions: Drizzle for hours in the south, cloudy in Sheffield. Temperature: Max 13- Min 7c.
Green Oak Tortrix caterpillars have a risky life, wherever there are Blue or Great Tit nests. Here’s a Blue Tit pair busy feeding maturing babies in a bird box in Sussex, today. Dozens of times every hour these adults are finding Oak Tortrix caterpillars from a nearby Oak and feeding this favourite food to their young It’s what gives the young their very yellow chests when they first emerge. This is not the only risk the caterpillars face- the eggs are laid with the hope that the caterpillars emerge exactly when the
young oak leaves are growing. Too soon, and they will starve for lack of food. Too late and they will not be able to digest the tannin in the older Oak leaves. Just in time and they are fodder for many birds. In an attempt to avoid this, the caterpillars roll themselves inside the new leaves and bind them with a sticky fluid. These were still found! Conditions- Following yesterdays torrential showers, much cloud with some sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 13- Min 9c.
Homing Pigeons– I watched these at the weekend, in a local garden. They were feeding from grain on the ground. On the way to Sussex tomorrow so am just posting some facts and photo’s of these birds which so often alight in our garden’s to rest or feed up. They are descended from the Rock Dove, still to be found on our rocky coasts. The earliest recording of them being used to carry messages was 1200BC, when they carried news of flooding along the Nile. Arabs called them ‘The King’s Angels’ and they look quite ethereal in flight. In the 1800’s the whole of France was covered by an official pigeon post, and of course they were used by both sides, in World War 1 and 2, to carry vital messages to and from the front line. Now they are still reared and flown by local people from pigeon lofts around the city. Conditions: Warmer, with sunny intervals and a breeze. Temperature: Max 15- Min 7c.
Yellowhammers on the outskirts of Sheffield- I have covered these birds at RSPB Old Moor earlier in the year, but was delighted to watch them feeding (grain, on the ground, they don’t like feeders) in west Sheffield. These were males- the females are duller, though both, being buntings, have stripey brown backs and strong beaks able to crush seeds. Called ‘Yellow Bird of the Gorse’ (Melyn yr Eithrin) in Wales, they can be seen in fields, woodland edges, or sitting up on the tops of gorse bushes, singing. They have declined 50% in 25 years and are now threatened, and on the Red List. They are stunning. Increasing the sowing of flowers on field margins, and hedge-planting may help them rebuild their numbers. Conditions: Cool, cloudy and dry. Temperature: Max 13- Min 9c.
Solitary Bees- if I hadn’t been sitting in the garden, listening to the Test Match on the radio, I wouldn’t’ve noticed this beautiful, tiny solitary bee, which has found a nesting place in a tiny crack in the wood of a cold-frame! Unable to identify it, I uploaded the photo not the wonderful, free i-spot website and someone thinks it may be the Red Mason Bee, Osmia Rufa, though several solitary bees are similar so it might not be! The Red Mason Bee is common, nests in hollow plant stems, holes in bricks or wood, and, after mating, builds individual cells with mud and pollen, laying a single egg in each. The eggs pupate in autumn and the larvae hibernates, the adult emerging in spring to feed on pollen and nectar. Conditions: Mostly cloudy, dry day. Temperature: Max 16- Min 10c.
Grey Squirrels are incorrigible! Next door hadn’t put bird-food out for a few days, and ours is deliberately very hard for squirrels to access. I heard a gnawing sound and there was a Grey Squirrel, having climbed 4 m up our brick wall at the back of the house. It was gnawing at the Fallow Deer antlers a friend had passed on and we’d recently fixed up there. It then launched itself off next doors bay-window roof, and missed the hanging feeder. We watched it climb as high as it could up our Rowan, dangle on a thin, floppy
branch and leap across a 3 metre gap, just grabbing the hanging feeder but failing to get a proper grip, and falling again! I was so astonished I only got a blurred photo, and then next door put food out again so I don’t think I’ll get another chance to photograph its massive leap. Conditions: Sunshine and showers. Temperature: Max 11- Min 7c.
Common Carder Bees are just that- pretty common wherever there are flowers to feed from. We get many in the garden, especially using their long probosces to feed on the Pulmonaria and other long-tubed flowers. Carder Bees have darker thoraxes the further south they are found, and the Queens are bigger and brighter coloured than the later-emerging males. As with all Bumblebees, the Queens are the only ones to over-winter, emerging in early spring to find nests in cavities, old mouse-holes etc. They produce around 200 female drones to look after the eggs and nest, the males foraging for food– you can often see their pollen baskets laden with pollen as they rapidly
visit flower after flower before returning to the nest. Conditions: A cool, breezy (south-westerly) and cloudy, dry day. Temperature: Max 13- Min 8c.
We’ve been having visits from this lovely little mouse, which I think has to be a Wood Mouse, though its ears don’t seem quite as big as they usually seem! Wood Mice are the most wide spread and common rodents in the UK, mostly coming out at night. They have brown backs and pale undersides, a long tail and big ears. Like all our native mice, they seldom survive from one summer to the next, so have to breed quickly to carry on the generations. They build complex burrows and networks of chambers, some of which they use as food stores. They often cover the entrance to their burrows with sticks and leaves. This one was eating seeds under the bird-feeders and was happy for me to creep quite close to it. Conditions: A breezy, dry day with sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 13- Min 8c.
A look at the declining Herring Gull, as I travel back up to Sheffield today. Every day, late afternoon, mum has a visit from this Herring Gull, at her new home overlooking Bexhill sea-front. It taps on her window, stands on the open threshold of the nearby door and sits on the balcony, staring at her staring back at it! A very welcome visitor. It gives a chance to identify this large gull’s main features: the adult has a pale grey back,
black wing-tips with white ‘mirrors’, pink legs and a red patch on the underside of its beak. Juveniles are mottled browns and greys. At Bexhill at least they are still quite common but overall, despite increasingly turning up in urban settings and farmland, their population has dropped by 50% over the past 30 years. Conditions: After some lovely sunny weather recently, dry and cloudy in the north, wetter in the south. Temperature: Max 11- Min 5c.
Blue Tits– I’m travelling down to Sussex again today so the posts may be few and far between for a while but here’s the Blue Tits we have in the garden, the female displaying to be fed, to strengthen the mating bond, collecting feathers for a nest from our supply gathered from one of mum’s old feather pillows, and generally hanging around. The Blue Tits are nesting in next doors box so we still see lots of their activity. As with al female birds at present they’ll be using lots of energy and body-weight to produce about an egg a day, while having less time to feed. Conditions: Set fair with cloud and sun. Temperature: Max 17- Min 9c.