Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Birds of Prey (in South West London!)

I was out delivering leaflets for our Community Lunch when I spotted it circling over the centre of Hounslow – a red kite!  No, I don’t’ mean the sort that a child might try playing with on a breezy day.  I mean the feathered, flying variety which, prior to the start of a re-introduction programme in 1989, was almost extinct in the UK.  The red kite reintroduction programme is one of nature conservations greatest successes to date.  Anyone who has driven along the M40 in recent years will be aware of just how strong the numbers have become.  I once counted 75 kites between the M25 junction and Junction 9 in Oxfordshire.  I hasten to add that I wasn’t driving at the time.  During the first Lockdown in 2020, I became aware of red kites soaring overhead above our garden and surrounding area. Quite often they are being mobbed by crows which is what alerted me to their presence. More recently I have become accustomed to seeing them on a regular basis as I drive over to church, usually soaring over Hounslow Heath near the cemetery.  Until last autumn I was trying to work out whether I was seeing the same bird or whether there was a pair.  However, a local RSPB post told me that there are at least three in the area.  Apparently they can often be spotted sitting near the entrance to Crane Park. It’s a good reminder to always look up – you never know what you might see!  When it comes to a red kite, if you’re not sure what you’re looking for, they are reddish brown in colour with white wing patches and, as they soar, their tail feathers fork which makes them relatively easy to spot. 

Kite hovering over Hampton (c) Elizabeth Malone

Another bird of prey you might see locally is a sparrowhawk.  We’ve had a very welcome resurgence of sparrows in Hampton but, with sparrows, inevitably comes one of their key predators – the sparrowhawk.  Relatively small for a bird of prey, they have steely grey back and wings with a browny/pink breast.  One morning in January there was the most tremendous cheeping commotion coming from our front garden that put all our cats on high alert.  When I looked outside, there was a sparrowhawk sat right in the middle of our euonymus hedge!  The moment it moved, the sparrows all fell silent.  I don’t think it succeeded in catching one but I was torn between losing a sparrow or the hawk not getting its breakfast!

Sparrowhawk on my hedge! (c) Elizabeth Malone

The third bird of prey I want to mention is another that you can almost be guaranteed to see locally in south west London and that’s the kestrel.  Even if you’re not a great bird-spotter, I suspect you know how to recognise a kestrel.  They are the birds that you often seen hovering at the side of a motorway with their eye firmly fixed on their prey; their wings beating furiously whilst their head remains totally stationary.  They are fascinating to watch and if you want to see one locally, head out for a walk in Bushy Park.  They particularly seem to like the grassland area as you enter the park from the Hampton side at the end of Duke’s Head Passage although I’ve also seen them just beyond the ponds, again over the rough grassland where they are hoping to spot mice and other small mammals. 

Kestrel hovering in Bushy Park (c) Elizabeth Malone

We’ve also seen one very local to us in Hatherop Park in Hampton but, to our surprise, we saw one hovering over our own garden last summer! 

Watching and waiting – kestrel in Hatherop Park (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Garden birds – our feathered friends

This year I’m going to focus on different aspects of wildlife that we might find in our gardens and local parks. Like so many, I’ve been amazed how many little wildlife nooks and crannies I’ve discovered during the various lockdowns of the past two years. I’ve also become a Volunteer Ranger in my local Royal Park, Bushy Park, in south-west London which is giving me another insight into what lives locally other than the human species!

I’m starting with garden birds as it’s time for the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch which will have me once again glued to the dining room window, binoculars and scrap paper in hand for my five-bar-gate counting. However, I’m aware that I am no wildlife photographer and birds have a habit of flying away the moment I produce a camera, so I apologise now for any appalling photos included here! This is a garden blog and not a photography blog!!

Birds are probably the most obvious form of wildlife that we like to attract to our gardens and provide us with a very quick and easy connection to nature. Whether it’s just a small feeder tray of seed or a whole collection of squirrel-proof feeders with a range of different types of food, it seems that we all love providing some extra nourishment for our feathered friends, especially during the cold months of winter when it’s harder for them to find enough food naturally, and during the breeding season.  If you’re going to purchase a bird feeder, I’d urge you to spend as much as you can afford on a something tough and squirrel proof otherwise your birds may not get quite the food you’d planned!

Our study, squirrel-proof feeders have services us well (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before writing this, I made a quick list of all the birds we regularly see on our garden and I’m delighted to say that we have more than 20 species flying in on a weekly, if not a daily basis.  (I’ll add a list at the end). However, there have been some significant shifts over the years.  Twenty years ago we were complaining about the mess created by the fussy eaters – the greenfinches, who used to pick at the seed and throw out anything not to their taste.  Now we would be over the moon to see one.  The reason behind this rapid decline has been well publicised by the various bird charities. A parasitic disease that prevents the birds from eating properly means that poor greenfinches are now headed for the endangered list.  The disease is thought to be passed on around feeders so it’s an important reminder to keep your feeders clean. Now I’m beginning to fear for chaffinches. Once plentiful in our garden, I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen a male arrive in the past week but where are the rest of his chums?

Chaffinch on our old patio when they used to turn up in large numbers (c) John Malone

At the opposite end of the scale, I’m delighted to say that the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of house sparrows in our garden.  I counted no less than 21 descending into our hedge the other afternoon.  They love our birdbath and are the one species that really get in there and happily splash around. However, we have discovered that birds don’t like the tennis ball we’ve been using to stop the water freezing. They won’t go near the bath if the ball is in there!

Sadly off-putting tennis ball!

Goldfinches arrived some 15 years ago and continue to multiply, devouring niger seed by the kilo.  Over the past 2 winters, I have also seen a goldcrest in the garden.  Not to be confused with the goldfinch, this little chap is the UK’s smallest bird (along with the very similar firecrest) and is absolutely tiny but easy to spot with its striking yellow striped head.  I have my fingers crossed that they might also become a regular but they don’t seem to be attracted to feeders so might be harder to encourage. In the Bushy Park Visitor Centre we have a goldcrest nest on display. It is absolutely tiny and it’s really hard to imagine the size of eggs and fledglings that hatch in this minute marvel.

Of course it’s not only feeders that make a bird-friendly garden. Shrubbery for birds to shelter and nest is also important, as is plenty of sources of natural food such as berries and plants that attract insects. That much maligned plant, ivy, surely has to be near the top of the list as one of the most bird-friendly plants. The other day I spotted a woodpigeon getting up to all kinds of antics trying to reach a particularly juicy bunch of ivy berries.

Ivy in the frost (c) Elizabeth Malone

Every winter we await the arrival of redwings in our garden. They absolutely love the cotoneaster berries and will demolish a large plant full in a matter of days. Given how rare it is to see either a song thrush or mistle thrush in the garden these days, an annual visit from this very pretty close relative is always a delight.

Cotoneaster beloved of redwings (c) Elizabeth Malone

My favourite visitors are the great spotted woodpeckers and the long-tailed tits.  The woodpeckers embody the phrase ‘pecking order’ and it’s always interesting to see the reaction of other birds when they stake their claim at the feeders. Recently I saw a cheeky little goldfinch holding its own on one side of the feeder whilst the woodpecker dined on the opposite side. And of course hearing them ‘drum’ is a sure sign that spring is on the way. The long-tailed tits are just delightful, such pretty little birds. Always in small groups, they adore fatballs.

Of course the regular visitor that divides opinion in this part of the world is the ring-necked parakeet. We’ve been through phases in our garden when they’ve driven us crazy, arriving in huge flocks, but then suddenly we won’t see them for a while. I confess that it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship with them. They are noisy, messy and drive away the smaller birds but equally they are very entertaining to watch with their ridiculous acrobatics as they try to hang upside down!

Ring-necked parakeet on our feeder – only one?! (c) John Malone

If you feel that you’re only seeing the same few species of bird from your kitchen window, why not take a walk out to your local park? You may be surprised at the diversity of birds you see along the way. As I read on a recent local RSPB post, always look up, you never know what you might see!

Birds we see in our garden in south-west London over the course of a year:

  • Blue tit
  • Great tit
  • Long-tailed tit
  • Coal tit
  • Sparrow
  • Goldfinch
  • Chaffinch – fewer than we used to see
  • Wren
  • Robin
  • Redwing
  • Blackbird
  • Blackcap
  • Woodpigeon
  • Collar dove
  • Magpie
  • Jay
  • Great spotted woodpecker
  • Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Parakeet
  • Heron
Herons love our pond (c) John Malone

And very occasionally …

  • Green woodpecker
  • Sparrow hawk
  • Stock dove
  • Goldcrest
  • Thrush


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Let it snow!

Chill December brings the sleet,

Blazing fire and Christmas treat,

January brings the snow,

Makes our feet and fingers glow.

Sara Coleridge “The Garden Year”

My first Outside the Back Door based on Sara Coleridge’s poem, “The Garden Year” was written in February last year – so we missed January! For the purposes of my church magazine (the original driver for this blog), I need to combine December and January and, as soon as I read these verses, I knew it would work well as both coincidentally feature sleet and snow. I remember this poem so clearly from childhood and yet, if I’m honest, I can only remember one white Christmas whilst I was growing up. With climate change, the likelihood of a white Christmas in London and the south-east diminishes with each passing year.

Outside the back door January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

That said, you may recall that earlier this year we did indeed have snow! On the 24th January the country was deep in the heart of Lockdown 3, our church was firmly embedded on Facebook and many of us were viewing the Sunday morning service when suddenly down came the snow! There were lots of comments that the vicar and organist were going to get a bit of a shock when they headed outside to discover the world had turned white! Overlooking the turning circle at the end of our road, there were a lot of excited children building snowmen, making snow angels and being pulled along on sleds whilst everyone tried to stay in their strict family bubbles. The shrieks and shouts of excitement were all the more louder given the confined circumstances we were all in at the time.

Winter wonderland January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

I’m not a huge fan of snow. I’m sure lots of you would agree, it’s all very pretty unless you have to get somewhere! The beauty of last year’s lockdown snow was that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do! As a result, I think I enjoyed that snow fall more than most. Working from home, it was quite a relief not to have to worry about train services, opening times, staff rosters etc. Although in fairness some of my staff did have to travel in but we only had reduced services running due to the lockdown which made is much easier than a normal ‘snow day’.

Ice on the fruit trees (c) Elizabeth Malone

We also did what all Norwegian Forest Cat owners seem to do – we threw ours outside into the cold to take some photos of them in their native habitat! To be honest, they’re not that keen on this white slippy stuff and they rushed back indoors to a warm radiator within minutes!

Norwegian Forest Cats are meant to like this stuff! (C) Elizabeth Malone

As well as our footprints and the cats’ paw prints, I do enjoy seeing what else leaves its mark across the snow. It’s the one time you get to see the criss-crossing patterns left by birds hopping around in search of food. That’s the great thing about a winter cold snap, you never quite know what might fly into your garden. In that famous snowfall that brought London to a standstill a few years’ ago, we had a flock of redpolls turn up to raid the seeds on our birch tree. Almost without fail, by the end of January the large cotoneaster at the end of our garden will have been stripped of all its berries by an invasion of redwings. You really know that winter has arrived when you spot the redwings. At the end of January it will be the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch again and we will be glued to the garden with our binoculars to record our feathered friends and to see if anything out of the ordinary turns up.

Bird prints January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone

Prior to the snow, on 10th January my photos tell me that we experienced an amazing hoar frost. Sometimes I think this is prettier than snow. Snow tends to weigh things down whereas a hoar frost covers everything in the garden in sparkling jewels. I wrapped up to the nines and had a fun half hour or so walking around the garden for as long as my frozen fingers could hold the phone, photographing sparkling leaves, crystalline cobwebs and icing sugar dusted berries.

Frosted crab apples (c) Elizabeth Malone

By the end of January it starts to feel like we’re emerging from the darkness of winter. It will be almost light at five o’clock in the evening and the first flowers of the new year will be starting to emerge. If I remember exactly when to look, I might just see my tiny clump of snowdrops at the end of the garden. Last year our daily walks often took us through our local Cemetery where the crocuses were already looking stunning by the end of the month. As a result, I’ve planted bowls of crocus to have on our patio this year and I can already see them pushing up through the soil. I’m very much looking forward to seeing their burst of colour but in the meantime, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s rainy and it’s time to curl up in front of that blazing fire!

Crocus in Hampton Cemetery January 2021 (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Sounds of silence

Flapping, squeaking, buzzing … and not a jet engine to be heard!

I have lived my life underneath the Heathrow flight path. At my parents’ house, we used to look forward to a foggy day when the skies would fall silent but, since landing became more automated, even that ceased to be the case. Our current house was chosen for the fact that it generally falls between flight paths and doesn’t get planes directly overhead – hoorah! That said, there’s always the odd day when it feels like air traffic control have you in their sights. We do have the railway line, however, but since the Coronavirus lockdown began, trains have started later, finished earlier and they are shorter so they pass by more quickly.

Intense blue above us (c) Elizabeth Malone

So I look up to the part blue / part cloudy white sky and instead of vapour trails, I can see a swallow circling … or is it a swift? I always find it hard to spot the difference at a distance so we tend to hedge our bets and refer to the ‘swillows’! It’s not a particularly full sky today in terms of birds but then it’s May. Most birds have more important things to be doing right now than swooping across our skies. That said, isn’t it blue? Apparently it’s not just our eyes deceiving us or our imaginations romanticising this new ‘lockdown’ world, it really is ‘bluer’ due to the lack of pollution. The blue skies have provided an intense backdrop to what has been a very beautiful spring.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’ against blue sky (c) Elizabeth Malone

The squeaking is incessant. It has been a huge week for fledglings. This picture doesn’t really tell the story. The lawn was covered in greedy young starlings demanding food and our sparrow family who have kept us entertained all week. The sparrows seem to have taken home-schooling to heart and we observe daily lessons such as how to approach a squirrel-protected bird-feeder!

A handful of greedy young starlings – the rest were hiding behind the bushes!

There’s also a lot of flapping going on. That would be the wood pigeons and magpies sorting themselves out, some in our birch tree and some on the roof of the house at the end of the garden. This is interspersed with the ‘woo-woo’ of the collar doves.

Magpie at sunset in our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Seconds ago I had to duck! A formidable buzzing passed by my right ear as a giant bumble bee made its way towards the cotoneaster. The flowers of this plant might be tiny but the bees absolutely love it. We used to have the food-waste bin positioned near the prostrate cotoneaster in our front garden but that meant stepping very near the humming masses each time we used it. We concluded that it was prudent to move the bin!

Tiny flowers of the cotoneaster (c) Elizabeth Malone

I can also hear the relaxing sound of running water. Next door’s fountain is trickling into their pond, which reminds me that we’ve not yet turned on our fountain this spring. Something to do later. The sound of the trickling water is also hiding that inevitable summer noise – the whine of a lawnmower! Clearly no one has mentioned that it’s supposed to be ‘no mow May’ around here!

Time to turn on our own pond fountain! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Finally, I can hear the blackbird, surely one of the most beautiful bird songs. I know a mistle-thrust would probably be even more lyrical but this is south-west London, we can’t have everything you now! And as if to remind me that not all bird-song is necessarily beautiful, I can hear a bevvy of parakeets heading our way!

Good afternoon blackbird!
And good evening blackbird!


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The power of ponds

Water is an essential feature of any wildlife garden and for most of us that means a pond. If you are looking to make your garden, terrace or even balcony, more environmentally friendly, you can’t go far wrong in adding a splash of water.

Our pond in spring time (c) Elizabeth Malone

When we moved here twenty years ago, there was a willow tree by the pergola. The pergola had been carefully positioned by the previous owners so that it caught the evening sun in the summer and was therefore a lovely place to wind down at the end of the day with a glass of something cold in your hand. Sitting in the pergola and by the willow tree, we quickly realised that this area was begging for a pond. It is perhaps ironic that the willow tree subsequently died but we have never regretted the decision to build the pond.

Pond and pergola (c) John Malone

Before embarking on the pond we had tested the water (apologies for the terrible pun!) by plugging the drainage hole in a large ceramic pot, filling it with water and adding a water lily. It actually worked really well and was a delight to look at. I’d really recommend this for anyone who either doesn’t have the space for a pond or who just wants to add a bit more water to their garden.

Our increasingly giant water lily! (C) John Malone

Without a shadow of doubt, our pond is teeming with wildlife. As I write this, it is a glorious sunny spring day and red damselflies are emerging, skimming the water, perching on marigold leaves and quickly finding a mate. I’ve also counted six newts. On a day like this they love to just float in the sunshine. Sadly we didn’t have any frogspawn this year. We did have a lonely frog who turned up and waited patiently for its mate but clearly to no avail. We are really missing the tadpoles as they devour the green weed in the pond and keep the water clear. Instead I am having to mess around, trying to extract it with a hoe or any other device that seems to work. I’ve tried scooping with a net but trying to clean out the net before making the next scoop, is really frustrating! There are also water snails – where did they come from? Everyone always says build a pond and the wildlife will come. This is so true.

Tadpoles last spring (c) Elizabeth Malone

Creating a pond needn’t be complicated but a little extra thought will help develop a really good wildlife haven. For example, ensuring that there are plants with tall, strappy leaves enables damselflies and dragonflies to emerge from the water and dry off after shedding their skin. You need plants that will maintain oxygen levels to enable frogs and newts to survive. You should also always include a way out for any creature that accidentally falls in. Most people have hedgehogs in mind when they say this but your cat might appreciate it too! Fortunately we have only ended up with a soggy moggy on about three occasions!

Dragonfly emerging (c) John Malone

As well as being a wildlife home, the pond also helps to sustain a variety of other creatures. The birds love to bathe here as well as drink and we frequently see bees and wasps refreshing themselves. The heron, however, is one of our less welcome visitors as it is probably the reason why we don’t have frogspawn. From our observations, there is nothing better that a heron likes for breakfast than a nice juicy frog! A bit like foxes, I think we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the heron. They are so intriguing to watch. The first time I saw one standing by our pond early one morning, my first thought was that someone was playing a joke on me and had stuck a plastic one in the garden … but then it moved its head slightly!

Bee taking advantage of the marsh marigolds (c) John Malone

As we originally envisaged, sitting next to the pond is a really restful experience, watching the wildlife and listening the trickling water (on the occasions when we do remember to turn on the fountain!) and I would recommend to anyone adding a pond to your garden to enhance the environment, not just for the wildlife, but for you as well.

The relaxing sound of trickling water (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Cat defences

Last week it was a tail of murder and destruction outside our backdoor as a robin’s nest was plundered by the aggressive neighbourhood black cat.  We spent a very tense Wednesday evening trying to defend the nest with the aid of a water pistol but, despite seeing both adults fly from the direction of the nest early on Thursday morning, sadly it was not to be.  By Thursday evening the behaviour and feeding pattern of the robins had reverted to what I can only describe as normal day-to-day routine rather than the incessant to’ings and fro’ings of a feeding pair.  It seems ironic that it was only last month that I was commenting on the conflict we’ve felt at times between owning cats and feeding the birds (Nesting Now) but, as promised then, I will explain more.

Prior to owning our own cats, our garden was the territory of every cat and fox in the neighbourhood.  There was the ginger and white who strolled down the garden so regularly every evening that we actually laid our garden path along the line he had trodden!  There was Timmy one side of us and Toby and his various predecessors the other, plus a whole range of other occasional visitors who regarded our garden as excellent toilet facilities.  The foxes used our garden as the main thoroughfare between the railway line and the road lined with the rubbish bins and recycling containers that provide such rich pickings.  Whilst it was entertaining to see the young cubs being brought into the garden to play, it was less entertaining to clear up their mess every time we wanted to garden or even just to sit outside.

Fox exploring the garden

Fox on patrol – (c) John Malone (2005)

When we began exploring Norwegian Forest cats as a breed we quickly became aware that they are not very streetwise – the clue is in the name – ‘Forest’ not ‘Street’ cat!  Our breeder advised us to either keep them indoors or to create a cat garden.  When the kittens were growing up, we were in the midst of a major building project and so we delayed the creation of the cat garden until after that. During that time, however, we became convinced that this was the right thing to do. They loved being outdoors so much that it seemed almost cruel not to give them access to the garden.

Tortie cat climbing tree

Early explorations (c) John Malone

Whilst we don’t own acres of land, our garden is definitely larger than your average town garden so the first thing we had to decide was whether we could really afford, either in monetary or practical terms, to “cat-proof” the entire garden.  In the end we decided that there was a natural turning point and we incorporated a gate into the proposal that would allow us, but not the cats, access to the ‘far end’ or the ‘woodland’ garden if I’m being posh!  Curiously enough, the gate is at the exact same location at which the previous owners of the house effectively threw in the towel and decided they couldn’t maintain any more garden beyond that point!

Dividing the garden between the main area and woodland area

Natural divide – where to put the fence (c) John Malone (2006)

Having worked out where it was going, we had to decide what the cat fence would be made from and in the end we invested in a product called Purrfect Fence (yes, groan!).  A combination of very tough, plastic coated wire fencing with suspension arms that, theoretically, stop your cat from climbing over it, the product has been used all over the world and, in fairness, has already given over nine years good service in our garden.

Cat fence

Cat fence (c) Elizabeth Malone

The ‘pros’ of having a cat fence are that your cats can wander freely around your garden whilst the neighbourhood moggies cannot.  The foxes are also excluded, well mostly that is, apart from one or two over adventurous incursions that we’ve had to deal with over the years.  Any mess in the garden is your own cat’s mess and not everyone else’s and, of course, your cats are not annoying the neighbours by messing in their gardens!  Given that we also manage when our cats have access to the garden, and it’s certainly never at night or early morning when birds are at their most vulnerable, it also means that our garden is mostly a safe place for birds.

Three cats asleep under garden bench

Lazing around (c) John Malone

On the ‘cons’ side, it is an additional hassle when climbing plants get entangled in the fence.  The cat fence runs along the top of the larch-lap panels in the photo below but you’d never know it due to the over-enthusiastic clematis tangutica ‘Bill Mackenzie’ which swamps it every summer!

Cat inspecting the garden

Hidden fencing and foiled cat! (C) John Malone

If another cat does get in the garden, for example by walking along the various house extension roofs, then it can’t get out by itself (this has only happened twice so far).  The biggest ‘con’, however, is that it is almost impossible to erect the fence effectively around trees and our garden has quite a few of them.  Add to that a cat who considers the fence to be an assault course and who regards it as his duty to find and test every possible escape route, and you find you have created quite a challenge!  Of course once he’s out, he can’t get back in and you have to be alert to his usual routine and anticipate when he’s going to appear on the doorstep (or the roof!) ready to be let back in.

Ginger cat climbing the pergola

One of many famous escape attempts! (C) John Malone

That said, I think it has been a price worth paying for mostly knowing where they are! Of course whilst he’s out and about, I can’t hand on heart claim that he isn’t devastating the local wildlife or causing havoc with the neighbours (like the time he stole steak from next door!)

But returning to our robin’s nest, our cats were definitely not the guilty party. So what went wrong?  They nested in a dense viburnum that grows in our neighbour’s garden and is just the wrong side of our cat fence.  Our neighbours went away meaning that their spaniel was no longer on patrol.  The black cat, which seems to think it owns our entire road, kept climbing the viburnum onto the top of our fence.  Every time we saw it appear, John was out there with the water pistol but it was impossible to be on ‘nest duty’ around the clock and at some point the inevitable must have occurred. However, since then we have seen the adults flitting around the garden and on a couple of occasions we’ve seen them feeding each other, so hopefully they will go on to have another brood this spring and may be they’ll have more luck second time around.

 


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The inactive gardener

Over the past couple of months I have really appreciated the view outside the back door and that’s because I’ve spent a great deal of time at home and most of it confined to indoors and all because I sat down! Sadly sprained knees and gardening are not good partners and it’s been particularly frustrating during September and into October when the garden is in its final blaze of glory before autumn deepens into winter.

Stage one of the sprained knee coincided with a few days holiday in the Cotswolds and a lot of garden visiting, all done at a hobble. A revisit to Hidcote was much more enjoyable than the last time we went (three years ago). A new visitor entrance seems to have enabled people to spread out more quickly. It was also the one garden where the plant centre resulted in a purchase – a gorgeous shocking pink Salvia which, unfortunately due to the knee, is still sitting its pot outside the backdoor.

One thing that has struck me whilst I’ve been at home and that is that the birds are returning. It might seem an odd thing to say but it’s well known that our garden birds tend to vanish in August. I used to think it was my imagination but then I read a very useful answer to this question provided by the RSPB who explain that birds have come to the end of their mating season and are moulting their plumage. This makes them quite reclusive as they don’t want to be vulnerable to predators. However, in the last few weeks I’ve become much more aware of movement in the garden as flocks of great tits and goldfinches are one more flitting around our birch tree. The wood-pigeon has been particularly active too but that’s because it has been gorging itself on a diet of grass seed, sprinkled down in an attempt to cover our drought-induced bare patches, followed up by a dessert course of deliciously bright orange pyracantha berries, growing very conveniently at pigeon height just under the hawthorn.

The squirrels are also more active too. They are waiting for me to plant my spring bulbs! I’ve even spotted them scouting around the patio pots. Well they are out of luck as, until my knee heals, there’s going to be no bulb planting done around here! However, I am determined that I am going to have a good display of bulbs next Spring, unlike this year where I had virtually none left in my pots and the tulips I did have were not the ones I planted! The bulbs were ordered promptly in September and are now sitting in the cupboard under stairs. Before I plant them, I am first heading to the DIY store to pursue a cunning plan that involves the purchase of chicken wire and the creation of some pot protectors. I have a selection of miniature iris reticulata in purple (hopefully like the ones I grew in 2015 – see below), two types of multi-stemmed narcissi, one pale lemon and the other brilliant yellow with a vibrant orange trumpet, and finally a selection of tulips to top them off. I will also need to acquire some bedding plants to top off the pots and provide some winter colour and I will confess that I”m not quite sure how bedding plants and chicken wire will mix.

But before we get too carried away into winter and next spring, one of the pleasures of the last few weeks has been a final flurry of roses. In fact some of my roses have flowered better during late September and October than they did back in May and June as the drought began to bite. My Shropshire Lad was very considerate in producing a high bloom that I could see easily from inside the house but the distant yellow glow of Togmeister had me hobbling out down the garden to take a sniff!

Finally, as we prepare to turn the clocks back, we’ve been enjoying some stunning harvest moons rising eerily between the silhouetted branches of the birch tree. I have been busy rehearsing ‘Ruddigore’ too and I am reminded of the ghost’s song in Act 2, “When the night wind howls, in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies. Then inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight sky”.


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One for sorrow, two for joy …

“One for sorrow, two for joy …” and so the well-known rhyme begins but how many for five?  We asked ourselves this question recently when no less than five magpies landed in our cherry, birch and hawthorn trees at the same time!  They were strikingly lit by the early evening sunshine against a rather threatening grey sky although, being the driest Spring in years, the threatening cloud amounted to nothing.

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OK, so we only managed to capture 3 on camera!

I suspect that very few people would claim that the magpie is their favourite bird.  It’s certainly not mine but I do find them interesting and resourceful.  Of our local bird population, they are almost always the first to show signs of nesting.  This is usually evidenced by a pair of them in our trees tugging at smaller branches to create structure for their nest.  Where the nest is, I don’t know but it’s somewhere over to the north side from our house.  Having seen them break off pieces of twig, we then see them take off with these long strands trailing from their beaks.  Later they will be back to rummage in our grasses by the pond.  Presumably this makes good nest lining.  My only complaint is they are not very tidy about this.  Grasses do need thinning each spring and I do this by pulling my hands through them (wearing gloves as it can otherwise be a painful experience) and relieving the plant of huge great chunks of dead material which I then place in the compost bin.  The magpies, on the other hand, take the pieces of grass they fancy, leaving the rest strewn across the lawn.

As you may have noticed, magpies also chatter a lot so you soon know when they are around.  Sadly, the poor magpie is not blessed with a lovely lyrical voice like the blackbird, robin or wren, but instead makes a rather unpleasant clattering noise.  That said, it isn’t as painful on the ear as a jay!  We get a jay visit most Springs and it took a while for me to realise that it was the source of the most horrible screeching sound.  You just have to sit back and admire the colours of the jay and hope that it doesn’t decide to announce its arrival!

So what else do we know about magpies?  Well apparently their long tails account for at least half of their overall body length and their length of tail also indicates their social status.  Magpies are also known to be sedentary birds so it is highly likely that the five sitting in our trees were all related to one another and probably evidence of successful matings from previous years.  However, according to the RSPB, because the magpie’s territories are relatively limited, the area can therefore only sustain a certain number of pairs of birds.  As a result, non-breeding colonies will gradually form so that the area doesn’t become over populated and food scarce.  On average magpies lay around six eggs but the percentage of these that hatch and then survive into adulthood is relatively small.  Their overall life expectancy is around three years.

Sadly magpies also have a reputation for harassing smaller songbirds and destroying their nests.  I take a rather pragmatic view of this.  We’ve had sparrowhawks in the garden before now and they will terrorise everything.  In comparison, a magpie is a relatively small inconvenience for the other local birds and we see plenty of variety still so I don’t believe that their presence is that damaging.

Which brings us back to the rhyme.  So what is ‘five’?  The answer it turns out is silver and, just in case you don’t know the full rhyme, here it is for you:

One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl and four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret than can never be told.
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird you must not miss!


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Add one squirrel and stir …

Just to reassure you, this is not a recipe!  It was a remark made by John over breakfast during the Christmas break when he glanced out into the garden and saw a flurry of urgently feeding birds and squirrels chasing around.  The whole garden seemed to be on the move and so it often seems at this time of year.

I think there are a number of reasons as to why the activity seems so frantic in the middle of winter.  The days are short which not only affects the amount of time the animals have for feeding, but also when we get to see them.  During the working week from late November until nearly the end of February, I only see the garden in the light at weekends, apart from Christmas, which is something that makes the holiday quite special.  Suddenly we are at home for ten days and are around to see this compressed feeding frenzy.  Equally the birds need to eat plenty in a short space of time to sustain them through the cold nights.

I can’t explain it, 31032516503_3fa00d032a_mbut it seems that there’s also a change from the moment we have passed the shortest day.  Around 7.15am this week as I’ve been eating breakfast, I’ve been very conscious of the bird song.  It wasn’t there before Christmas.  Can the birds really be aware of that very small change in the earth’s rotation that signals longer lighter days are just around the corner?

We are also conscious of clusters of birds sitting around the trees, specifically wood pigeons and collar doves.  Early one afternoon we had six wood pigeons and eight collar doves all perched in our birch and cherry trees. Today the top of the wood burner flue is popular!

Back in the autumn we made some changes to our bird feeding arrangements which weere short-lived – more about that in my next post!  We were getting increasingly dispirited by filling the bird feeders on a Saturday morning only for a large flock of parakeets to descent and empty them by Saturday afternoon.  Not only was this costing us a fortune but it was annoying to see the smaller birds losing out so much.  As if inspired by the parakeets, we were also seeing more large birds dominating the feeders such as crows and magpies.  Something needed to be done.  In the end we purchased two new bird feeders, the sort designed to keep squirrels at bay, with outer cages to allow small birds in but to keep larger birds (and mammals) out.  One of these feeders has mixed seed in it and the other fatballs.  After a few months’ use we are pleased to say that these are allowing the smaller birds a fairer chance.  The bluetits, great tits and chaffinches all love the new feeders and, having smaller appetites, there is food out there for them for most of the week.  The larger birds are still welcome but they have to eat out of the remaining seed feeders and, once they are empty, then that’s it until we choose to refill them.  Some of the more dextrous parakeets do try to get into the caged feeders but it’s sufficiently challenging for them that they soon give up and move on elsewhere.

Keeping the squirrels away from the seeds is an added bonus.  However, it doesn’t deter their antics and they still like to jump onto the swinging feeders in an attempt to get 31097548814_4e58bb6fa1_mwhatever scraps they can.  In squirrel terms, our large ginger cat Bryggen is probably the best squirrel deterrent.  The more squeamish amongst you would prefer not know that 2014 will go down as a three squirrel year!  It’s made Bryggen a hero with our elderly neighbour who detests squirrels.  As well as having lots of pots with bulbs, he also has lots of small military models in his garden which the squirrels regularly move around much to his annoyance.  His reaction to Bryggen’s most recent squirrel conquest, “If he were a bloke, I’d buy him a pint!”


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Six parakeets and counting …

So here we are at the end of January and it’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch time again.  If you’re not familiar with the Birdwatch concept, all you need to take part is a pen, a piece of scrap paper, a view out of the window and an hour.  During that hour you need to record the sightings of the total number of each species of bird you see at any one time on your patch.  So you can’t count two robins unless you see them both simultaneously (and I find robins are particularly sneaky when it comes to flitting out of sight just when you think you’ve seen a second one!)

I love the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend and usually can’t resist doing the count more than once.  Normally we try to do it over lunchtime when we’re sitting near the window anyhow.  Lunch is usually interrupted by the dash for the binoculars – was that really two blackbirds down the end of the garden or cunning starlings pretending?!

I also always hope for something a little special. Over the years our garden has treated us to some unusual visitors.  One year it was redpolls and another it was redwings.  The redpolls required snow and very frosty weather which seems a bit unlikely this year.  The redwings also seem to need it cold to make an appearance but they’re not quite so fussy.  One January a flock of at least fifteen turned up!  The first day I saw one it was just a single bird which subsequently I decided was eyeing up the territory and had spotted the tree at the end of the garden which was still covered in red berries.  The following day he returned with his friends and the flock descended to strip the tree, turning it from red to green in about an hour – not a berry left!  Another less common (and less welcome) visitor might be a sparrow hawk.  We have seen them on several occasions in our garden, on one occasion causing chaos as a collar was chased down into our patio doors in panic.

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This one was taken in our birch tree

However, one species we dread seeing during the Birdwatch is parakeets – the curse of
Southwest London!  Some days we can see more than 20 on our cherry tree.  Whilst their antics can be highly entertaining, evidence does seem to suggest they drive away some of the smaller birds and, if nothing else, they simply steal their food.  If a flock of parakeets descends during our Birdwatch count, we may as well give up as nothing else will appear until they take their leave.

So how did we fare with Birdwatch 2016?  Well it certainly wasn’t one of our finest.

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Wren – courtesy of Wikimedia

We had several goes at it and saw 14 species overall.  Our best total bird count was 25 and included Great Tits, Collar Dove, Chaffinch, Wood Pigeon, Blue Tits, Robin, Goldfinch, Long Tailed Tits, Wren and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Parakeets!  The surprise was the Wren. A tiny secretive bird with its distinctive up-turned tail, it emerged from underneath the dense ivy leaves and flitted across to hide in a winter clematis.

So what is the point of the Big Garden Birdwatch?  It has now been running for some thirty years and during that time has gathered important data showing, for example, a 50% decline in the UK’s sparrow population and a 75% decline in starlings.  Knowing there is a problem is the first step towards doing something about that problem and without a doubt, this is one way of raising awareness of a changing environment.

For more details of this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch, go to the RSPB  website.