Big Garden Birdwatch 2017


As with last year, at 11am on the Saturday of the last weekend in January we did the RSPB’s annual garden birdwatch. The timing was slightly coincidental and says more about the time we rise at the weekend than any intention to provide as closely comparable a data set as possible. Conditions were probably not too dissimilar on the respective days, though 2017 was coming off the back of a series of cold nights and coldish days which had left the pond iced up for over a week. As temperatures had risen overnight the surface ice had melted leaving a shallow layer of water over the deeper ice. This provided the biggest draw of the day with eight+ Redwings, Blackbirds, Tits and Pigeons all bathing in the water. Unfortunately the pond is tucked in the back of the garden and screened from the house by the trees so we only got fairly unsatisfactory views secured by half-crouching and peering through binoculars from the upstairs windows.

Redwings are annual visitors to the UK from Scandinavia; however, numbers vary depending on berry levels and weather conditions. Alerted by their calls I’d seen my first of the year on the 9th October when four flew over from the east. I’ve been seeing and hearing them ever since but finally saw my first ever in the garden just two weeks ago. Though called the Redwing, Redarmpits might be a better name as might Eyebrowed Thrush if this wasn’t already taken by another species.

Other than the Redwings the list was fairly representative of what’s normally around and slightly disappointing compared with 2016 in that we saw four fewer species – Wren, Blackcap, Long-tailed Tit and Magpie the birds of shame (a term I have shamelessly stolen from the Birding Walks in RXland blog). No Dunnock, Starlings or House Sparrows all of which we very rarely see. In fact I’ve only seen two Sparrows ever in the garden which is quite surprising given there are quite a few small colonies within a 1/4 mile radius.

The wretched Parakeets were even more of a nuisance than usual as they were tucking into the magnolia buds. The only upside to this desecration is that they might finally turn my wife against them – I live in hope.

Nuisance bird
  1. Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) – max 1
  2. Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) – max 1
  3. Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) – max 4 (three more than 2016)
  4. Robin (Erithacus rubecula) – max 1 (one fewer than 2016)
  5. Blackbird (Turdus merula) – max 4 (2 of each sex)
  6. Redwing (Turdus iliacus) – max 8
  7. Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – max 2
  8. Great Tit (Parus major) – max 3
  9. Coal Tit (Periparus ater) – max 2
  10. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) – max 2 (one of each sex, with another male next door)
  11. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) – max 1  (two fewer than 2016)

Airborne Invasion

The exciting moth I mentioned in the previous post is the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) which conjures up images of biplanes piloted by Indiana Jones types. The male is quite large and relatively dull looking with impressive antennae but the female is an attractive white and black creature that apparently rarely moves – luring males in by sent.

2034_2016_08_11_London_Verdant Lane_Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) - male #2
Furry Pest #1 (boring male)

It’s an interesting moth for a number of reasons. Firstly, the native British subspecies became extinct around 1900 due to the drainage of the Fens. It apparently bred on bog myrtle and like the Large Copper butterfly wasn’t able to survive in fragments of increasingly unsuitable habitat. The continental form has much more catholic tastes, feeding on over 200 species of tree. While this might be considered a good thing, it can be an agricultural pest and has caused significant damage in the US where it was introduced by accident.

The good/bad news is it’s now (back) in the UK and is spreading. A similar pest species is the Oak Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea processionea) which is not only a potential agricultural pest but can cause significant health problems if the wrong person is exposed to the hairs of the caterpillar. This species is now established in Bushey and Richmond Parks in south-west London and apparently spreading despite attempts to control them (as documented in the excellent Regents Park Birds blog). Little did I know when I first drafted this piece that a few days later I’d catch the beast itself – it’s clearly made it further east or the individual in question was a fresh immigrant.

2022_2016_08_13_London_Verdant Lane_Oak Processionary (Thaumetopoea processionea)
Furry pest #2

Moths rarely make the papers but I suspect the red tops will have a piece on one of the two before too long; to be honest, they probably already have. In the mad scramble to tip the Brexit vote, one red top led with moths on it’s front page – warning that Diamondback moths were invading from Europe and would eat us out of house and home. They came (maximum caught in one night – 21) and are still here (two caught last week) but our kale is so far unviolated – a salutary lesson perhaps?


Mind the Gap: 2016 Butterflies

After a slow start butterfly numbers in the garden picked up through July and August. The heavy rain in June may have slowed development but shouldn’t have harmed the adults as very few species are on the wing at that time – the so called ‘June Gap’.

Though I have not (yet) seen Painted Lady or Small Tortoiseshell and the Large Skippers of last year didn’t re-materialised, other species were in higher numbers than in the two most recent summers. I’ve been doing Butterfly Conservations garden butterfly survey  and have recorded multiple Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown and Holly Blue. I’ve also seen Ringlet which was so unexpected I nearly passed it off as a Meadow Brown before I went in for a closer look. My wife was convinced from the images she looked up on the internet that she’d seen a Duke of Burgundy but having, like Sherlock Holmes, ruled out the impossible we/I decided it was probably a Speckled Wood (she’s still not fully convinced though).

2015_07_18_London_Verdant Lane_Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)
Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)

Identifying species in flight is pretty tricky, I don’t attempt to separate any of the ‘whites’ (including female Orange-tip) with the exception of Large White, and was very nearly fooled into thinking a Gatekeeper was a second generation Comma (or the other way around – I forget). I did see a bona fide Comma on the hop I specifically planted for them to breed on but there’s no sign of any caterpillars yet. Earlier in the year Comma did breed on the Red Currant bush I’d planted with half an eye on attracting various moths and made quite a mess of it so in future it would be better if they kept with the programme and adhered to my plan.

Grammatical error (Polygonia c-album)

The hop is potentially host to the rarest creature we get in the garden – Buttoned Snout, a nationally scare moth. I’ve caught it in the trap the last two years but haven’t made too much of an attempt to look for larvae. There are plenty of hop plants along the railway line between HG and London Bridge so I imagine there are quite a few more out there if anyone wanted to look.

While on the subject of rare Lepidoptera, in 2016 I’ve not yet caught Toadflax Brocade (I did in 2014 & 15). It’s officially a Red Data Book species but has expanded in recent years, no doubt for climatic reasons, and so it’s status may change when the book is next reviewed. I have however caught an ‘exciting’ species formerly extinct in the UK for over 100 years but will save that for another blog.

‘Keeping’ Wild Bees

My wife would very much like to keep honeybees but a) she’s not qualified to do so and b) it sounds like a lot of work, albeit very sugary rewarding work. We get plenty of honey bees on the lavender, Erysium Bowle’s Mauve, and the other plants favoured by pollinators which we’ve added to the garden so I think they’d do well; perhaps in 2017.

Although we don’t keep honeybees there are plenty of other bees that make the garden their home. When I was digging the pond in November 2013 I uncovered queens of Common Carder Bee and a whiteish-tailed type bumblebee (maybe Buffy-tailed) but I’ve never found a bumblebee nest in the garden and subsequent attempts to build a bee hibernaculum were overrun by slugs and shelved. However, we have been more successful with both Red Mason and Leaf-cutter bees, solitary species that can be persuaded to nest in loose colonies where they lay eggs in cells provisioned with pollen.

I acquired some Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) larva from my uncle’s kindly neighbour in winter 2014 and though the garden isn’t ideal as it’s located on an east-west axis and no where gets full sun throughout the day they have semi-thrived since.

2016_05_08_London_Verdant Lane_Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) - egg
Mason Bee larva on pollen [the straw was damaged pre-photo]
Pupa can be bought, generally to aid fruit-tree pollination, and ‘kept’ (ie encouraged to nest once they hatch) by providing a bee home of the type commonly advertised or, better, one that holds cardboard straws with paper inserts like the one above which can be removed, the pupa cleaned of parasites, and then stored for the next year. Sometimes the bees hatch but go rogue and don’t nest in the perfectly suitable home you’ve provided. They’re pretty inconspicuous, so much so that I have no photo of the adults, and often go unnoticed. Still, some things you think would be obvious. Like bees living in your door handle. But no, I only discovered that some had nested when I removed the handle to fix it – they must have used the keyhole to gain access to the cavity.

Mason Bee cells (I think) – but with parasitic fly larvae (Cacoxenus indagator)

Leaf-cutter bees are a little more obvious, particularly if you have any roses as they typically cut semi-circular sections out of the leaf edges which they then use to line and seal their larval cells. In theory, leaf-cutters will use the same homes as the mason bees but for the last two summers ‘ours’ have been using some solitary bee houses we were given as a wedding present.


There Be Dragons

Over the three summers we’ve had the pond I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen a dragonfly. Large Red and Azure Damselflies are plentiful but I’ve only seen Southern Hawker and Common Darter a couple of times, always singly. Incidentally, I did additionally once find the remains of a Southern Hawker that had been eaten and dismembered, presumably by a bird (which species, I have no idea). Anyway, sightings of single insects tends not to lead breed confidence in the next generation appearing. However, at the start of the month I photographed a Southern Hawker emerging from it’s larval case.

Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea)

Within half an hour it’s wings had hardened and it was gone. A few days later I found a second exuvia and both are now residing like alien life forms on the book shelf; apparently the creatures in the Ridley Scott franchise were based on dragonfly larvae so this is no exaggeration (size apart of course).

Terrifying for Borrowers

In other pond news, the ******* foxes have again damaged the pond liner and the water level is several inches lower than it should be. I’ll try and patch it again, cross my fingers and hope that my attempts to fence the approach are sufficiently off-putting for it to happen a third time.

On a more positive note, I found an adult newt 70+ feet from the pond while shifting a pot. It’s always interesting to see newts away from water – in compete contrast they’re surprisingly dry to the touch and very slow moving. Though a number of tadpoles are still present, small frogs are hopping around the garden albeit in quite low numbers – I suspect the aforementioned dragonflies and newts have taken their toll.

Amphibian update – The dance of the newts

Newts breed much later in the year than frogs and it’s a much more complicated process, less about wrestling and more about pheromones – the world as viewed by Chanel as opposed to Fosters perhaps? Anyway, having laboriously cleared out some of the algae, carefully removing the entangled tadpoles, I was finally able to properly see what’s been going on in the pond. In essence it’s involved lots of showing off from various male newts, usually to other male newts, with added pheromone wafting when they really mean it.

The not-so-sharp picture below shows five male Smooth Newts trying to show each other who’s boss.

2016_05_01_London_Verdant Lane_ Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) - 5 males

All of this activity is possibly pointless as the females seem to be paying no attention and, as evidenced by the photograph below, have already got it on and got on with it and laid eggs.

2016_05_01_London_Verdant Lane_Newt eggs

The photo also goes to illustrate the further dangers in removing algae from your pond unless you are prepared to spend quite a lot of time sifting through it strand by strand. This highly responsible and high pressured job is best done by someone with dedication to the cause and a willingness to devote hours to something some might consider futile i.e. not  my wife or the cat. Such activity also leads one to discover damselfly nymphs such as the one below.

2016_05_01_London_Verdant Lane_Damselfly larvae ups - probably Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

I suspect this will turn/turned into a Large Red Damselfly which started to emerge from the pond on 2nd May, more or less the same date as they have the previous two years.

Male Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

In non-pond news, Swifts are back. I’ve seen a maximum of three over the garden which is comparable to previous years but very unimpressive overall. Swifts are apparently suffering due to a lack of nesting sites and an RSPB campaign seeks to encourage people to report sightings and do more to help them. So far this year I’ve also seen three Swallows over the garden and though I suspect that’s it, in anyone’s book that already constitutes a summer.




Spring Beauties

I’ve had the moth trap out on weekend nights when it hasn’t been raining but the cold nights haven’t been conducive to catching very much. As a result I’ve only caught 31 moths of 12 species compared to the 68 of 23 species I’d caught by the end of April in 2014.

Most of the catch has been made up of typical spring moths of the Orthosa family which have religious or descriptive names like Common Quaker, Hebrew Character or Clouded Drab and they fittingly have a rather puritan colour palette of browns and greys.

2187_2016_04_03_London_Verdant Lane_Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi) - variation
Chapel Chic: Four shades of browny-grey (aka the Common Quaker).

However, not all spring moths are plain and some of the Geometrid family have earned the epithet Beauty for good(ish) reason – a good reason seemingly being they’re large and fluffy looking though still very much a study in grey and/or brown. For the second year in a row I’ve caught Oak Beauty and for the first time Brindled Beauty.

1930_2016_03_20_9999_33 Oak Beauty (Biston strataria)
Oak Beauty (Biston strataria)
Brindled Beauty (Lycia hirtaria)