Outside the Backdoor

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


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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.