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April 26, 2012

Creating a Wildlife Friendly Garden

by Val Reynolds
Frog tadpoles

Frog tadpoles

As a child I was fascinated by things that moved which included frogs and newts, to dragonflies, to ants and slugs, bees and butterflies. At one stage my sister aged four and I, a couple of years older, put together an outdoor ‘museum’ with our exhibits in boxes to show our parents. Our  ‘cunning plan’ to bump up our pocket money was to charge them a penny each for admission – it worked!

Then birds entered my world and both interests have continued throughout my life.

One year I wanted to photograph birds in the garden and did a bit of research to find out how it had been done by others. We visited the RSPB headquarters and watched the great tits, blue tits, finches and great spotted woodpeckers feed on the nut and seed containers. Incredibly I saw a sparrowhawk take a great tit feeding on the nuts. Unlucky for the great tit of course, but the speed of the sparrowhawk was breathtaking. I was stunned, hardly able to believe what I had seen. I can still picture the body of the great tit hanging from the claws of the sparrowhawk.

Waiting a turn

Waiting a turn

The first step to set up a photographic area was to establish a feeding station. Regular feeding will attract the birds from the local area and as they come to rely on them it is important to keep the supply going throughout the winter. We use a squirrel proof seed container with the RSPB no mess mixture. That sounds a bit ‘neat and tidy’ but switching from the usual mixture saved having to frequently clean up the empty husks of the sunflowers all over the patio. Photographing birds on the feeder is ok and can show how attractive tits find the nuts and seeds.

However Kevin Keatley, a wildlife photographer advocates screwing a clamp to a pole just below the feeder. The birds land on it just before they go on to the feeder. Adding a sprig of autumn berries, or spring blossom makes for a more natural shot. Kevin uses a hide and a feeder about three to four metres away. The advantage of using a hide is that you can move it with the changing light. If you keep the sun to one side it gives a bit more depth to your photos. The ideal light is around midmorning or midafternoon. He has used the hide in heavy snow, the snow or frost covered hide is just like an igloo, insulating him from the freezing wind. There was a time when his wellies froze to the ground – but he says it was worth it when the slides came back with fantastic close ups of pheasants in the snow. Kevin has a website where you can see the hide and chair he uses. His site is well worth a visit, it is full of fascinating information and likely to stimulate some unexpected wandering on the web – have a look at his links.

Our feeders were hung from the pergola, about ten feet from the conservatory windows. I fixed a bed sheet across the open window and down to the ground, cut a slit in the sheet and poked the camera lens through. The camera was mounted on a tripod. I was happy with the bird shots I was getting and then one day a woodpecker came to the peanuts and I had to think about how to have it feeding away from the peanut container which didn’t look very natural. So I asked a friend to let me have a fallen branch from one of his trees.

Male great spotted woodpecker

Male great spotted woodpecker

We drilled big holes to hold the unshelled hazel nuts and almond nuts and placed the branch between two posts of the pergola. The nuts started to disappear although we didn’t get a glimpse of a woodpecker. Then one morning we did – it was very excited, making that distinctive, sharp ‘pic’ call. From then on we were adding nuts every three or four hours. Then may be two weeks later, two fledged young ones visited with their father. You can imagine how excited we were at the prospect of photographing them. That was easier said than done. As there was no regularity to the visits, the window was nearly always shut at the most exciting times!

I took some pictures through the double glazed window of the parent feeding the young but they were not sharp. Eventually only one young one came with its parent, and it took to hanging around the garden waiting for its parent, making desultory attempts at breaking open the nuts.

Young great spotted woodpecker

Young great spotted woodpecker

Once it found how to successfully eat the peanuts it lost interest in the hazelnuts. Then we witnessed the inevitable, the parent actually attacked the young one quite fiercely in response to its crying for food and we never saw them together again. They visit separately now. We expect them to continue to visit in the colder months and will have a big stock of nuts waiting for them! Strangely we haven’t had any problem with squirrels taking the hazelnuts. We did have problems with the peanuts until we bought the strong wire version that can’t be unhooked.

So progress? We are going to drill out bigger holes and put in walnuts – a tip from a very successful woodpecker attractor! We’re going to put a dead branch parallel to the ground about three feet up near to the feeders – I missed some really good shots of a great tit feeding its young – they were partially hidden by greenery on the cherry tree and I’m hoping with careful pruning and branch placement I’ll get the pictures I want!

Hoverflies eating pollen on a poppy

Hoverflies eating pollen on a poppy

Other steps I have taken to make the garden friendly to both insects and birds are to flowering plants that attract insects. The poppies, all varieties, attract hoverflies in droves. The nettles – kept in a pot – have ladybird larvae all over the leaves that hoover up aphids on neighbouring plants at an enormous rate. I let most plants go to seed – the evening primrose was a huge success with goldfinches. I had problems with keeping the seed from setting the next year, but the hoe is a wonderful tool!

Tiny midges hovering over cabbage flowers

Tiny midges hovering over cabbage flowers

I let some cabbage go to seed and had clouds of tiny black insects hovering over them. An expert told us it was their mating pattern.

In the spring plum blossom attracted a range of bees, from solitaries that live for six weeks, to big queen bumbles. I’ve found foxgloves, onion flowers and blackberries attract the most bumblebees. I like lots of colour in the garden and through trial and error have marigolds, escholtzia, oregano, poppies, evening primrose, foxgloves, nasturtiums, nigella growing unchecked. I’m trying lots of others – herbs, beans, roses, clematis, vines and hops.

Song thrush bathing

Song thrush bathing

The latest attraction is the bird bath perched on the patio wall. We’ve seen everything drinking and bathing there, from wrens to a pigeon that just flopped in and sloshed around to keep cool, and of course our woodpeckers.

What’s next? We’ll be putting up some nest boxes. It’s absolutely essential to have reliably waterproof and well designed boxes. The RSPB’s most popular boxes are for the tits and the open fronted box – suitable for robins, pied wagtails, and more excitingly, spotted flycatchers which are much more common than you might imagine.

The worst type of nest box lets in the rain – the young die from cold and damp, or the exit hole is too low and the young ones emerge underdeveloped and can‘t fly strongly. Result: they flop to the ground and are easy prey for jays, magpies, cats, rats. So if you are serious about making your own please, please, please get a copy of the British Trust for Ornithology booklet Nestboxes, written by Chris de Feu. It’s a gem, with designs for all kinds of birds including owls and house martins and a fascinating read.

For a month by month guide to attracting birds Stephen Moss has written The Bird-friendly Garden, published by Collins and gives lots of advice on how to make your garden a haven for birds. He gives advice on predators and pests, for instance for cats he recommends a machine that emits a high pitched whilst, inaudible to human ear but intolerable to cats. Gardens are the one place where we all can make a difference to wildlife … we felt enormously privileged to play a part in the upbringing of the two great spotted woodpeckers this year. We hope we’ll be doing the same next year.

Last year we attracted some bees to our bee nest box and are hoping for more this year. We brought the box indoors and kept it in a cool area of the house until early spring when the bees emerge. We bought our bee nest boxes from the now defunct Oxford Bee Company.  Read our recent feature about the Neudorff Insect Hotel here. By the way we now have another Neudorff Insect Hotel to giveaway! All details on the feature.

Val Reynolds, Editor

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