Garden Ecology: Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

The Green Woodpecker is supposedly a fairly common bird in the UK (c. 52,000 pairs) but we see it only rarely in the garden.  The Great Spotted Woodpecker is a more regular visitor and often comes to feed on the peanuts in the bird feeders.

The Green Woodpecker is the largest of the British Woodpeckers and is the size of a large pigeon.  It typically feeds on ants probing ant nests with its strong beak and long tongue.

This individual is an adult male as it has a crimson-centred moustache.  The female has a black moustache.

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It seems that the Green Woodpecker (unlike the Great Spotted Woodpecker) does not drum.  Their song is a very characteristic loud ringing laugh (click to play)

 

Audio credit: Olivier Grosselet, Xeno-canto

Scarlet Tiger Moth – garden wildlife

Last autumn I attended a fascinating nine week course at the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust on macro moths.  I did hear the comment “what do you want to do a course on moths for?” a number of times but it was a fascinating evening class.

It has helped me appreciate the sheer diversity and number of moth species in my garden alone.  Most importantly it has helped me understand what I need to do to make the garden a more friendly habitat for both the adult moths and their caterpillars.  Of course many of these caterpillars are also food for the many birds we have nesting in the garden as well at this time of year.

The Scarlet Tiger (Callimorpha dominula) is a relatively large moth (23-27mm).  It is typically a southern moth in the UK (south of the Wash), in the south west and rarely in the south east.  It has unmistakable white and yellow spots and blotches on black on the forewing and a largely red hindwing which can just be seen in my photograph.

The adults fly in June and July by day and at night.  Its preferred habitat is wetlands, including riverbanks and ditches, grassland, coastal habitats (not applicable here!) and gardens ¹.

According to wikipedia the caterpillars mainly feed on comfrey (Symphytum officinale), but also on a number of other plants including Urtica (nettles), Cynoglossum (borage), Fragaria (strawberries), Fraxinus (ash), Geranium, Lamium (dead-nettles), Lonicera (honeysuckle), Myosotis (forget-me-not), Populus (poplar), Prunus (cherry), Ranunculus (buttercup), Rubus (blackberries et al), Salix (willow) and Ulmus (elm) species).  All of these are in plentiful supply here in the lanes and in the garden.

Further reading

¹ “Concise guide to the moths of Great Britain and Ireland” by Martin Townsend and Paul Waring (ISBN 978-1-4729-6583-7)

Scarlet Tiger Moths are in the family Arctiidae, subfamily Arctiinae which includes the tigers, ermines and footman.

It has been a rather blustery day…

It has been so windy this weekend that taking pictures for ‘Six on Saturday’ (and doing any gardening) has been a bit of a challenge.  Luckily there has been surprisingly little damage.  My other challenge has been limiting myself to just six as there are so many beautiful things emerging in the garden.  Anyway here are my six for this week.


One:  Anthericum liliago major (St Bernard’s Lily)

We saw this plant in the white garden at Bourton House Garden in the Cotswolds a couple of years ago and just had to have one.  It is lovely and has established very well.  Next year I think we will have a go at dividing it and spreading it further around the garden.   If you get a chance to visit Bourton House Garden is excellent.

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Two:  Eleagnus commutata

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This deciduous Eleagnus has been very successful growing in the long grass at the edge of the shrubbery.  It is currently covered in sweet smelling yellow/cream flowers and fills the air with scent even on a windy day like today.


Three:  Angelica archangelica

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These plants have been a long term project.  One of those spectacular, tall architectural plants that take a bit of time to grow.  They are biennials and I originally sowed the seed early last year planting them out in the early autumn.  This year they have come of age and the bees and insects absolutely love them.  They are tall (nearly 6ft) and magestic plants that stand up well despite the strong winds we have had this weekend.  I am pleased with them but I think my wife is less impressed!


Four:  Robinia

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This tree was originally grown from a small seedling.  It took a little while to get going but now each year it is covered with masses of white, fragrant, pea-like flowers.  It is something we always enjoy but beware it does have some seriously dangerous spikes.

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Five:  Dutch Iris ‘Red Ember’

As growers and former event florists I think we are both fans of dutch iris and typically grow the mixtures which are blue, white and yellow.  This year we tried the variety ‘Red Ember’.  It has a rather lovely exotic colour and I wouldn’t be surprised if we grow it again next year.  What we do need to do I think is decide what other plants would complement it in the border at this time of year.  Any views welcome.

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Six:  Greenfinches

Next for something completely different.  Greenfinches (Carduellis chloris) have been in trouble in recent years and their numbers have declined across the UK due to disease.  A recent decline in numbers has been linked to an outbreak of trichomonosis, a parasite-induced disease which prevents the birds from feeding properly.

Over the last couple of years we have heard the characteristic calls of greenfinches but they have remained high in the trees and rarely ventured closer into the garden.  This year we seem to have a group of three (perhaps juveniles) that have been skipping around the shrubs in the garden together.  Worth a place in the ‘six’ for this week I think.

P1040199 Greenfinch


The Six on Saturday meme is hosted by The Propagator. Click on the link to be inspired by what other plant lovers are enjoying this weekend.

First cuckoo of the year

Out walking the dog this lunchtime (30th April 2020) we heard our first cuckoo of the year (Cuculus canorus) across the Warwickshire fields.  

The RSPB website highlights the rapid decline of this bird which is now considered a red list species but its sound is so evocative of early spring and summer.  It has a slim hawk- like shape with sharply pointed wingtips.  The adults typically arrive in April with the adults leaving again in July with the young leaving in September.

It is well known of course for its remarkable habit of laying eggs in the nests of other birds and subcontracting the care of eggs and young to small songbirds.

Cuckoo song:

Audio credit: David Farrow, Xeno-canto

Photo credit:  Vedant Raju Kasambe / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Peacock Butterflies

The warm weather of the last few weeks has certainly brought out the first of the butterflies in the garden.  The first to emerge are those that have over-wintered as adults.  The Peacock butterfly is one of a select bunch of hardy British butterflies that can survive the cold in the United Kingdom hibernating as adults.  Others include the Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Red Admiral and Brimstone.

If you want these beautiful creatures to have a safe haven it is important that you don’t spend too much time clearing away and tidying up.  These butterflies need a safe undisturbed place in a shed or wood pile.  Don’t cut back the ivy and other climbers as this is also a good hibernating spot for other over-wintering butterflies and also moths.

Of course, these over-wintering insects are also food for our garden birds in the harsh winter months and we often see the tiny wrens darting in and out of the ivy collecting food and potentially making nests later.

Over the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of seeing Peacock, Brimstone and Orange Tip butterflies flying through the garden.  Rather than over wintering as adults the Orange Tip butterflies over winter as a chrysalis emerging early in the spring to lay their eggs.

Brimstone butterflies (9453720568)
Brimstone Butterflies (Photo credit:  Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

All of these butterflies have emerged early so that they can mate and lay their eggs on the fresh spring growth of the caterpillar food plants.  The Peacock caterpillars feed on stinging nettles, the Orange Tips on Cuckooflower and garlic mustard and the Brimstones on Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn.  Once again don’t be too eager to clear the garden of all these wild plants if you want your garden to be rich in animal wildlife.

Orange Tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines)
Orange Tip Butterfly (Photo credit: Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0))

As a child I remember with great pleasure collecting Peacock caterpillars, feeding them up on nettles in a jam jar until they pupated and then waiting eagerly for the butterflies to emerge and fly away freely.  The fascinating lifecycle of these creatures and their beauty continues to enthral me to this day.

Goldfinch – a colourful winter resident

A decade ago Goldfinches ( Carduelis carduelis ) would have been a very rare visitor to our garden here in Warwickshire. In recent years however these small birds with their almost tropical, bright coloured plumage seem to be regular visitors and seem to stay with us all winter long.

It is reported that in the 19th century Goldfinches were often kept as caged birds with many individuals being taken from the wild. Thankfully the sale of wild birds is now illegal and their numbers have recovered well with an estimated 1.2m breeding pairs across the UK.

We rarely see Goldfinches visit our bird table or feeders but they often sit around in groups in the taller trees. In winter we see them perched together soaking up the last rays of evening sunshine before the sun sets. It is rather nice that the collective noun for a group of Goldfinches is call a Charm.

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Goldfinches in the garden soaking up the late afternoon January sunshine

Described as a “colourful bird of weedy, over grown rough ground” they feed mainly on thistle heads and teasles and other small seeds (I take no offence as to the indication this gives to the state of our garden – we garden with biodiversity in mind!),

They are very lively and sociable birds and we nearly always see them flitting around the garden in groups. Their twittering song is charming and easily recognisable:

Goldfinch song:

Audio credit: Ruud van Beusekom, Xeno-canto

I am not sure where in the garden they nest but we do see them flying in and out of some of the larger evergreen conifers. Goldfinches nest later in the year than many other garden birds so that there is a good supply of food (mainly regurgitated seeds) for their young. This late nesting may well be something worth considering when planning your hedge cutting regime for next year.

Goldfinch Nest (Photo credit: South Notts Ringing Group – real-time link)

Further reading

“The Crossley ID Guide – Britain and Ireland” by Richard Crossleyand Dominic Couzens (ISBN: 978-0-691-15194-6)

Native Bluebells – a walk in Hampton Wood in Warwickshire

The English countryside certainly has its spectacular moments and a bluebell wood in full bloom in the spring sunshine is just something to behold. This week we took time out after a busy Easter weekend to have a wander around Hampton Wood. Owned and managed by the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust this ancient woodland lies close to the banks of the river Avon (OS Sheet: 151; SP 254 600 Post code: CV35 8AS).

This wood and meadow is quickly becoming one of our favourite places to walk since joining the Trust last year. It is a delight. At around 12.3 hectares the reserve is not enormous but there is plenty to see and hear and try to identify.

Here are some photographs (taken on 23 April 2019) which try to capture some of the impact of these woods at this time of year. At first sight it is the mass of blue that takes you aback. However, as you look more closely the mix of other wild flowers create a series of beautiful cameos of contrasting colours and texture. Here are just some of the flowers and ferns we spotted in a short one hour meander around the reserve.

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The bluebell wood in all its glory
P1020622 Primrose - Primula vulgaris
Primrose – Primula vulgaris
P1020607 Greater Stitchwort - Stellaria holostea
Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria holostea
P1020620 Red Campion - Silene dioica
Red Campion – Silene dioica
P1020647 Green alkanet - Pentaglottis sempervirens
Green alkanet – Pentaglottis sempervirens
P1020636 Crab apple - Malus sylvestris
Crab apple – Malus sylvestris
P1020606 Lesser Celandine - Ficaria verna
Lesser Celandine – Ficaria verna
P1020605 Wood anemone or Windflower - Anemone nemorosa
Wood anemone or Windflower – Anemone nemorosa
P1020623 Ground Ivy - Glechoma hederacea
Ground Ivy – Glechoma hederacea
P1020630 Cuckoo flower - Cardamine pratensis
Cuckoo flower – Cardamine pratensis
P1020638 Fern croziers
Fern croziers
P1020595 Yellow archangel - Lamium galeobdolon
Yellow archangel – Lamium galeobdolon
P1020593 Common Dog Violet - Viola riviniana
Common Dog Violet – Viola riviniana
P1020594 Bluebell - Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Bluebell – Hyacinthoides non-scripta
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A view amongst the trees

We will of course be visiting again over the coming months to see how the flora and fauna change and develop during the year. We would like to be much, much better at identifying birds from their individual songs and calls and to help us improve we have signed up for a spring bird identification workshop next month. No doubt we will come out of the course full of enthusiasm but will it stick. Memorising the sounds birds make seems to be so much more difficult than identifying them from their plumage. Hopefully it will enhance our enjoyment of these beautiful wildlife reserves still further. If nothing else it will gives us hours of fun!

Sunday Garden Birdwatch – 7 April 2019

The garden is full of bird life at the moment from dawn to dusk.  A particular highlight today has been our ‘crazy’ male chaffinch who has spent the day fighting his own reflection in the kitchen window – exhausting for him and us!  A Chaffinch is usually quite a rare sighting in our garden and this spring we seem to have a pair that are present most of the time.

This post is intended to be a simple record of the birds we have spotted in the garden today (7 April 2019).   The garden is about 1 acre and located in the countryside just outside Warwick (UK).  It has a substantial number of mature trees and shrubs and is surrounded by countryside on all sides.  This is mainly grazed pasture but there are also arable fields close by (this year mainly growing oil-seed rape which is just starting to come into flower).

We have a number of bird feeders in the garden which contain peanuts or a bird seed mix.   Here are today’s sightings.  The photographs are all taken in the garden but not necessarily today.

Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatch

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

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Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

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Blackbird (Turdus merula)

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Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Wood Pigeon

Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

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Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Blue Tit

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

P1020167 Jackdaw

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

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There are of course other birds that visit from time to time but they have not appeared today.  Next week perhaps!

Robin Red Breast singing in the March sunshine (video)

The garden is full of bird song at the moment and it is a pleasure to simply stop and listen and watch.  I never quite seem to have the camera with me at the right time but this little robin was kind enough to sit still long enough whilst I zoomed in and caught its song on video.  The robin’s red breast and plumage is certainly at its best at this time of year as they prepare for the new breeding season.  The red in particular looks great here against the glossy dark green leaves of the holly (Ilex aquifolium)

The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) is resident in the garden throughout the year feeding on insects, invertebrates, worms, seeds and fruit.  Although very territorial, during the winter we do see a number in the bushes waiting their turn under the bird table or to visit the seed feeder.

They may be very common throughout the whole of the UK but our garden would not be the same without them.