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)

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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)

P1020416_Moment

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock P1020370

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

P1020225

Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Wood Pigeon

Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

P1010831

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Blue Tit

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

P1020167 Jackdaw

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

P1020472

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

Autumn and winter residents – our feathered friends

Our garden here at Waverley is home for a wide range of birds, many of whom stay with us throughout the winter weather.  Some, like the fieldfares and redwings, are migratory and visit to feast on the berries.

Over the last few months we have been trying to catch as many of these on camera as we can. Not an easy task as some of them move so very quickly and many are very shy creatures.

Here is a selection of the residents for 2017/18.


Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus)

Blue Tit

Food: Small insects, larvae and other invertebrates plus seeds, fruit and buds


Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus)

Wood Pigeon

Food: Seeds, grain, fruits, vegetables, berries and some insects and worms


Ketrel (Falco tinnunculus)

Sparrow Hawk

Food: Small mammals and birds, worms and insects


Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

Song Thrush

Food:  Worms, snails and fruit


Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Blackbird

Food: Worms, insects, berries and seeds


Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

Fieldfare 4

Food: Berries, fruits, worms and insects


Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

Chaffinch

Food:  Insects and seeds


Great Tit (Parus major)

Great Tit

Food: Mainly insects, spider and small invertebrates but also fond of nuts


Coal Tit (Periparus ater)

Coal Tit

Food:  Insects, seeds and nuts


Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

Goldfinch 1

Food: Some insects but mainly weed seeds


Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris)

Greenfinch

Food: Seeds and insects


Nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

Nuthatch

Food: Insects, seeds, nuts and other fruits


Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Food:  Mainly insects and larvae but will also rob nests for young birds.  Will visit feeders for nuts in winter.


Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Food:  Mainly insects and spiders but also seeds.


Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Food: Mainly insects and spiders plus some fruit, seeds and berries


Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

Food: Berries, fruits, insects and worms


Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Food: Seeds, berries and fruit


Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Food:  Insects and small invertebrates with seeds in winter


In addition there are some I have not managed to catch on camera yet. These include wrens, collared doves, sparrow hawks, magpies, buzzards, jackdaws, jays, carrion crows, sparrows and more.

By trying to provide garden habitats that offer seeds and attract insects our aim is to encourage as many of these beautiful birds as possible. They all add interest to the garden and keep us occupied with the binoculars for hours!

 

All photographs and videos are the property and copyright of Dr Stephen Lucey, 2018

Garden Ecology: Great Spotted Woodpecker

One of the most flamboyant visitors to our garden in the winter months has to be the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major).  Its striking black and white plumage with vivid splashes of red are always a pleasure to see.

We often see these woodpeckers skipping around the trunks of the silver birches and they are also frequent visitors to the bird nuts for an easy meal on colder days.  They don’t stay long but we were lucky enough to have the camera ready to capture the following video footage.  The red markings on the back of the neck indicate that this is a male woodpecker.

The Great Spotted Woodpecker stays in the locality all year and you often glimpse its characteristic bouncing or undulating flight and hear its call as its travels across the garden.  They have a remarkably wide distribution throughout Europe and Asia and also into North Africa.

Great Spotted Woodpeckers are omnivores, feeding on both insects and grubs as well as nuts from the feeders.  It is also reported to take the eggs and chicks of small birds.

We have not yet found out where the nest hole is located but it is reported that they maintain a territory of up to 12 acres.  We will keep our eyes peeled over the coming months.  It is always wonderful to see the baby woodpeckers with the parents later in the year but unfortunately we do find that these young woodpeckers do have a tendency to fly into the window panes and injure themselves.

References and further reading

“Birds of Britain and Europe” by Nicholas Hammond and Michael Everett (ISBN 0 7063 6040 0)

Wikipedia – Great Spotted Woodpecker ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_spotted_woodpecker )

RSPB – Great Spotted Woodpecker ( https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/great-spotted-woodpecker )

The garden in late January

The garden here at Honey Pot Flowers may appear cold and quiet but the new year is coming upon us quickly and there is plenty to do and much to see.

Despite the low temperatures here in Warwickshire, bulbs and flowers are beginning to emerge.  The snowdrops are now in full swing complemented by the pinks and purples of the cyclamen and hellebores.  The first of the primroses and yellow crocuses are beginning to flower and the air is filled with the scent of Daphne odora and Sarcococca.  And, what is more, the sun has started to shine!

Galanthus elwessii
Galanthus elwessii
Cyclamen coum
Cyclamen coum

The garden birds are extremely busy foraging for food across the garden.  Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatchs, Chaffinchs, Dunnocks, Blackbirds and Great Spotted Woodpeckers are all regular visitors to the garden now with Buzzards mewing and flying overhead trying to catch any weak thermals that might come their way.

Crocus
Crocus
Primroses
Primroses

With time marching on we are also trying to get all our pruning jobs completed before we get into seed sowing in earnest.  A few days bright and dry weather has allowed us to start pruning back the bush and climbing roses.  Ideally the climbing roses should have been done in November but better late than never!  With the climbers we are untying all last years growth, cutting out some of the old stems to shoot afresh this year, cutting off the side shoots to a couple of buds and then tying in three or four strong new stems to flower this year.  In March we will give them a good feed to set them on their way.

Helleborus orientalis
Helleborus orientalis

In the orchard we are also starting to prune the apple and pear trees.  There are three main tasks to perform here on each spur fruiting tree:

  • remove any dead or diseased branches
  • improve and open up the structure of the tree by removing crossing or unwanted branches (this also increases air flow and helps minimise issues with disease)
  • prune back any of the new leaf shoots from last year to three or four buds leaving the flower buds on the spurs to develop.

With partial tip bearing trees, such as the Bramley, remember that some of the flower buds are on the end of the stem and removing these when pruning will obviously reduce your crop.  The wood, or growth buds are much smaller than the flower buds that will eventually provide you with your fruit.

Winter pruning underway in the orchard
Winter pruning underway in the orchard

One thing to remember when pruning fruit trees is that if you prune hard the tree will grow back vigorously producing a rash of long ‘water’ shoots.  This will make pruning next year much more difficult.  Ideally you need to achieve a balance, just enough pruning to improve the health and structure of the tree and encourage the tree to put effort into fruiting and not too much that the tree produces excessive vegetative growth.

It really is such a pleasure to be out in the garden again at the start of a new gardening year.  There is much to do and seed sowing is just around the corner.

 

Cotoneaster and Pyracantha: Loved by the birds, florists and gardeners alike

 

Looking out across the garden in the autumn sunshine on this November morning  it is the Cotoneasters and Pyracantha that are some of the star plants of the moment.  Their red and orange berries give a spark of colour to the yellow autumn hues of the hedgerow trees.

Perhaps rather over used in municipal planting, especially Cotoneaster, there are many interesting cultivars and species to choose from both to add interest in the garden and for use in floral arrangements.

For an added bonus these shrubs bring the garden wildlife right up to the house windows.  It is such a pleasure watching the birds feeding on the Pyracantha.  This morning in just a few minutes we saw a pair of the most beautiful Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) in their red plumage, a Dunnock (Prunella modularis) and a Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) all feeding together. Blackbirds (Turdus merula) and Redwings (Turdus iliacus) are also regular visitors whilst the Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) shelter on the branches whilst busily feeding on the insects on the window panes and under the roof tiles.

Varieties in the garden at Waverley

We are not entirely sure of the species and varieties we have here at Honey Pot Flowers so please feel free to comment if you think we have got the identification wrong.

Cotoneaster Cornubia (Cotoneaster X watereri ‘Cornubia’)

This is quite a large fast growing shrub with dramatic arching branches and long willow like leaves.  It has large showy clusters of red berries that stay on the plant much later than the ‘wild’ types of Cotoneaster that we have around the garden.  It is semi-evergreen and has glossy dark green lanceolate shaped leaves which are clean and free from disease.

Cotoneaster 'Cornubia'
Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ in the Honey Pot Flowers garden in mid-November

Cotoneaster Rothschildianus (Cotoneaster salicifoilus ‘Rothschildianus’)

Very similar in habit to Cornubia but has creamy-yellow berries.  It is semi-evergreen in our garden with a lovely arching habit.  The berries hold well.

Cotoneaster Rothschildianus
Cotoneaster Rothschildianus in mid-November in the garden at Waverley

Pyracantha

Related to the Cotoneasters, these plants come in a wide range of colours and the name of our variety is lost in the mists of time.  Ours has orange/red berries and masses of white flowers in early June.  By pure luck we have a dog rose climbing up amongst it and the pretty pink flowers of the rose complement the Pyracantha flowers wonderfully.  It is a big plant and needs regular cutting back (probably more cutting back than we actually get around to) but it has vicious spikes and needs carefully handling.  It is not something that you can put through the shredder and spread on the flower beds as mulch as the thorns remain and get in the dogs’ feet.

Pyracantha
Pyracantha laden with berries in November attracting bullfinches, redwings, thrushes and blackbirds

Floristry

Cotonesters are very useful as foliage throughout the year and can add that additional Christmas feel in November and December.  Their long arching habit and well behaved upward facing foliage make them extremely useful in large floral arrangements for large table centrepieces, door wreaths, church archways and pedestal arrangements.

Ideally the stems should be cut fresh in the morning.  You should slit the stem (about 1 inch) before conditioning for 24-48 hours in clean fresh water with flower food if you have it.  Slitting the stem helps the water uptake.  Even if the stem tips drop at first they will soon perk up over a 24 hour period.  Refresh the water every 24 hours if you are not using immediately.

Cotoneaster foliage
Arching cotoneaster foliage complementing orange and white fragrant roses, sweet william and campanula

Unlike Pyracantha and Berberis, which are very spikey and need to have the spines removed before using, Cotoneaster stems are thornless and therefore much less time consuming (and painful) to work with.

If you want to get to the berries before the birds you can pick them and keep them in water for a good few weeks in a cool place.  Remember to keep changing the water every few days.

Family:  Rosaceae

Origin:  According to Wikipedia Pyrancantha coccinae ranges from North Eastern Spain to Northern Iran whilst the Cotoneasters originate from areas across temperate Asia, Europe and North Africa.

Hardiness:  According to the RHS, Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ and Pyracantha are graded as H6 (Hardy in all of UK and northern europe -20 °C to -15 °C)

Propagation

We have always had great success in propagating Cotoneasters by taking hardwood cutting in the Autumn.  Take about a 9 inch cutting (about a pencil thinkness) from mature wood, cutting cleanly just above a node at the top and just below a node at the bottom.  Cut the stem at an angle at the top to help you remember which way up the cutting needs to be planted.

Put the cutting(s) the right way up either into a nursery bed in the ground or into a deep pot filled with a well drained, loam based compost (the deep rose flowerpots are ideal for this).  You can put a number of cuttings into a single pot.  The cuttings should be at least two-thirds of their length under the soil.

Water in well and place them outside where you can look after them.  They will stay in the pot or ground for about 12 months before you pot them on.  Just let them grow leaves and roots during the summer, watering as necessary, and then pot up in the autumn into individual pots or if the roots are big enough into the garden.

Offer any spare ones to your friends!  You will have many more than you need.

Pruning

Pruning in the right way at the right time is critical to maintaining the flowers and ultimately the berries.

With Pyracantha the flowers (and subsequently the berries) are formed on short spur growths on the previous year’s growth.  Any new growth in mid to late summer will need to be left to mature in order to produce the next seasons flowers and berries.

With Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ it is the open branching structure that is so attractive and it is probably best to avoid pruning excessively other than to remove wayward or damaged branches that look out of place.  If you want to reduce the size or thin out the tree we typically use the ‘one-third’ technique on many shrubs.  Each year you remove one-third of the older stems leaving the majority intact.  The next year you remove another one-third of the old stems (leaving any new ones) and the same again in the third year.  In this way you slow reduce the size of the shrub each year but it will still flower and look good in the garden.

Birdlife

We haven’t managed to capture footage of the male bullfinch yet but here are a couple of clips of a female Bullfinch and Redwing enjoying the Pyracantha berries in mid-November.

Further reading

RHS “Pruning” by Christopher Bricknell (ISBN 1-85732-902-3)