Outside the Backdoor

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


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Friend or foe?

Image result for grey squirrel gardenSo this has turned out to be a rather topical Outside the Backdoor for February’s Parish Magazine.
Do you like squirrels?  For you are they cuddly and cute sitting there nibbling on a conker or are they the menace that digs up your garden and should be treated like vermin?  There’s no doubt that, as our wildlife goes squirrels, much like foxes, are very divisive.

I think we tend to have a love / hate relationship with them but this winter it has definitely tended more towards the hate end of the scale as they have wreaked havoc outside the backdoor.

At the end of October, I was exceptionally efficient in ordering my garlic and getting it
24022687212_655ddf4780_mplanted in the veg plot.  In recent years I have found that autumn planted garlic does really well in the garden and results in large, usable bulbs unlike the spring planted which used to produce tiny bulbs that were really difficult to use in cooking.  However, no sooner had I planted them this year than the squirrels had other ideas and the plot was turned over by their scrabbling and the cloves were scattered to the four winds.  By now I should have an orderly set of green shoots of garlic about four inches high but there is no sign of anything, presumably because I am now looking in the wrong place because the squirrels have decided to replant them.  I am guessing that I am suddenly going to find garlic growing randomly in strange corners of the garden!

If squirrels weren’t menace enough, we’ve also been battling with mice.  Before you start wondering how on earth a house with three cats can possibly have a problem with mice, I should explain that they run around the wall cavities and beneath the sprung floor or our extension (why, oh why did we not have a solid concrete floor?!)  No one has been able to explain why, but it’s a problem common to many of the houses in our road.  However, the reason for mentioning this in the context of a squirrel discussion is that we found out that the local pest control people won’t come out to deal with the issue if you have things such as bird feeders in the garden that could be attracting the mice in the first place.  So very reluctantly we have removed all our bird feeders temporarily.  Imagine our annoyance then when, over Christmas, we spotted squirrels bringing fatballs intended for the birds, into our garden from goodness knows where, and caching them under our hawthorn tree!  Even worse, as they did this, they were having a good go at wrecking the Christmas decorations we had hung on the black elder and acer trees.  These bare branches had turned into a squirrel superhighway.  Meanwhile the birds are losing out on their regular supply of food and, with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch due to take place at the end of January, I can’t see us holding out on empty bird feeders for much longer.

So where are all the squirrels coming from?  And why do we seem to have experienced an explosion in the squirrel population in our garden?  The reason became clear as the leaves fell last autumn.  Amongst the bare branches, dense pockets of leaves and twigs were revealed which I suspect make up no less than four squirrel dreys in the garden.  Unlike most people’s image of a nest, a drey is a relatively untidy home with little structure, rather thrown together amidst the higher reaches of a tree.  Currently two reside in a hawthorn and two in our cherry plum.  Now we have to decide what to do with them.  Squirrels often have two sets of young, called kittens, in early Spring and early Summer.  If we don’t want four full nests in our garden, we shall need to break them up very shortly before there are young in them.

31937305725_0a1633af30_mHaving now read up on the breeding season, this does make sense in terms of what we’ve experienced with one of our cats regularly catching squirrels.  In the earlier part of last year we had no less than six squirrel incidents but nothing since, although one did have a close shave over Christmas when it was running up and down the olive tree right outside the backdoor.  Bryggen (large, furry and ginger) was on full alert with his normal cheeky expression replaced by that of a grand hunter!

Although I now regret writing that as we’ve had a narrow escape today with Bryggen sporting a rather muddy, bloodied paw as a result of his catch refusing to lie down!

I used to wonder why my next door neighbour was so angry about squirrels but his garden is full of lovely bulbs and various ornaments so now, as a I look out on every pot on the patio that has been dug up, I completely understand where he’s coming from!  It’s a stark reminder that, if you want a wildlife friendly garden, you cannot pick and choose!


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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.

Carolina_Wren_2

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.