Outside the Backdoor

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


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All on a summer’s afternoon

I was doing that rare thing of actually sitting in the garden recently when I glanced up and did a double take. A red kite, flying relatively low, over the gardens of south-west London is not a common sight! I scrabbled around for my phone and randomly pointed the camera up at the blue sky, being blinded by the sun as I did so, hence the extremely out of focus image below!

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Out of focus red kite over south-west London! (c) Elizabeth Malone

It served to remind me that a few year’s ago I wrote an article about the wildlife I’d seen in the garden on a single summer’s afternoon and so I was prompted to stroll around and take a closer look.

The comma must surely be the friendliest of butterflies? That afternoon there were two dancing around over the pond and around our pergola. They follow this same pattern every year and yet I know full well that they are not the same butterflies! They sun themselves on the pergola, or occasionally on the leaves of the climbing iceberg rose and then when they flutter around, if you happen to be standing close by, they will land on you!

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Comma butterfly (c) John Malone

We do get quite a range of butterflies in the garden from small holly blues through to much larger cabbage whites which eye up my salads for laying their eggs! This afternoon we were in for a treat when a very large red admiral chose to sunbathe first on our echinops and then on the echinacea. Of course the moment the camera was present, it danced around and failed to stay still but we did eventually manage to capture the moment.

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Red admiral teasing us on an echinacea (c) Elizabeth Malone

Also dancing around and teasing us were two much smaller butterflies that I didn’t immediately recognise but later identified as gatekeepers.  I confess that I have been very slow to develop my knowledge of butterflies and so am slightly embarrassed to have read that gatekeepers are really common and, to be honest, I ought not have had to look them up!  I was delighted when one decided to pose on this echinacea.

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Gatekeeper butterfly on Echinacea Purpurea Magnus (c) Elizabeth Malone

The garden is also buzzing with bees of every shape and size. Last weekend it was the tall, heavy stems of the acanthus with their multiple flowerheads that were literally the bees-knees but this weekend focus has shifted to the raspberries. Stand nearby and all you can hear is a constant drone, a poignant reminder of how important it is to have a healthy bee population to pollinate our crops. But whilst it’s a delight to see that there are so many bees present, it does make fruit-picking a little hazardous!

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Bee investigating raspberry flower (c) Elizabeth Malone

In the main flower border, the echinops are now coming into their own, developing their spiky haircuts. The traditional pale blue globes have always been popular with the bees so last year, when we bought a white variety, we wondered whether it would have the same draw? We need not have worried as typically there is at least two bees on each globe and I have seen as many as five!

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Echinops sphaerocephalus ‘Arctic Glow’ (c) John Malone

Whilst I am writing this, I am wriggling my bare toes in the cool grass but I am conscious that we don’t have a pristine lawn and we do have quite a lot of clover growing which is also popular with the bees. I don’t want to accidentally wriggle my toes into a bee!

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Our clover infested lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone

It has also been a bumper year for ladybirds. This photo had all my friends talking on Facebook – what would the offspring look like?!

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Ladybirds on our mirabelle tree in April (c) Elizabeth Malone

Since that photo was taken in April, we have had numerous ladybird larvae around the garden and we have, on occasion moved them to a particularly aphid infested plant in the hopes that they view it as having been taken to a Michelin starred restaurant.

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Ladybird lavae (c) Elizabeth Malone

And what of the pond on this summer’s afternoon? Apart from needing to top it up due to lack of rain, it is actually quite challenging to see the surface as the water lilies have rather taken over! Just occasionally I can see that there is still a late developing tadpole swimming around the lily pads and, if I’m very lucky, I might catch a glimpse of a sun-bathing newt. This afternoon there are very few damselflies but there have been plenty of both blue and red over the summer and we are starting to enter dragonfly season.  We now know to look out for them emerging out of the water and onto the strappy leaves of the iris or the stems of the pontederia.

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Dragonfly emerging from both the pond and its skin (c) Elizabeth Malone

We didn’t set out to create a wild-life friendly garden but now I don’t think we buy any plant that isn’t wild-life friendly. So flowers are always single (we don’t particularly like double varieties anyhow) and if they come with the ‘perfect for pollinators’ label, even better. It’s great that our gardens are now being recognised for the contribution they make to environmental wellbeing. And so as I sign off, I can see a squirrel scratching its nose at the top of our birch tree, two small white butterflies on the verbena bonariensis and three bees on the lavender – all great company on a sunny afternoon.

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Bee and lavender (c) Elizabeth Malone

 

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Little and large

At first I wasn’t even sure that I had actually seen it, it was so tiny.  I was gardening at the far end of the garden when I was aware that something very small indeed had flown past me.  It reminded me of the occasion, possibly as much as ten years’ ago, when John had come back from that end of the garden talking excitedly about this tiny bird he had seen with a bright yellow flash on its head.  At that time we had to delve into a bird book in order to identify it – a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird!

Since then, goldcrests have had a little more publicity on programmes such as SpringWatch, or maybe I’ve just become more aware of them through reading magazines from the RSPB.  When I say they are small, I really do mean it.  At just 9cm in length, they weigh a mere 6g!  Yes, you read that correctly, not much more than a teaspoon of sugar!  Apparently they do breed right across the country but you are far more likely to find them in coniferous woodlands or parks with large, mature trees, than you are in gardens in Greater London.

Goldcrest

Photo:  Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons

So had I seen a goldcrest?  I just had an instinctive feeling that I had.  Then, later the same day, I spotted a tiny bird literally hanging around our birch tree.  It looked smaller than a bluetit and, when I say ‘hanging around’, it was doing just that but its mannerisms were different to the bluetit which we see most days.  I grabbed the binoculars and discovered just how difficult it is to home in on something so small!  However, for once the bird cooperated and didn’t immediately fly off, and I was able to home in on it and, to my delight, to see the bright yellow streak on its head – definitely a goldcrest!  It hopped around a bit more before coming a little closer into the camellia.  I’m also delighted to say that it’s been back.  I’m sure I saw it later the same week and then one evening this week it hopped around our hawthorn tree.  Needless to say we didn’t have a camera to hand, hence the Wikimedia photo above!  Having said that, the bird is so tiny that our chances of getting a good picture through the lounge window are probably slight!  It would be fantastic if this little bird became a regular visitor so I have my fingers crossed that it’s not scared off by the boisterous parakeets or, worse still, predated by the ever-present crows, magpies and our local jay.

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Parakeet pairing!  (c)  John Malone

On the same evening that I spotted the goldcrest, John was heading out into the garden to add some kitchen waste to the compost heap when he stopped in his tracks.  “Heron!”, was all he said.  Ah, that time of year.  The frogs were back to lay their spawn in mid-March and since then we have been aware of the heron circling the garden more frequently.  There’s nothing a heron likes better than a few frogs for breakfast, lunch or tea!  This particular heron was stationery, poised to pounce.  When we built our pond, we invested in a pair of very stylised heron sculptures which are quite a feature next to the pond.  Bizarrely, this real-life heron was mimicking the same stance, making it look as if we had three in a row rather than two!

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Real-life heron imitating art!  (c) John Malone

I can always remember the first time I came down to breakfast and saw a heron by the pond.  I honestly thought someone had played a joke and put a plastic one in place!  Why and who, I have no idea why my mind thought this rather than the more obvious thought that this bird had spotted our new garden feature!  Measuring nearly a metre in length and weighing in at between 1.5 and 2 kilograms, nothing could be further from the goldcrest in terms of size!  However, there are a similar number in the country – 60,000 goldcrests compared to around 63,000 heron, but unlike the goldcrest, herons have always liked London.  When we used to work near the Thames in Isleworth, there was a heronry opposite and John could often count five or six in a line up along the river bank.  If you visit Regent’s Park, heron are usually found up in the trees!  To me they remain a creature from a by-gone era and we often joke, “Pterodactyl overhead!” when we see one!

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Take off!  (c) John Malone

I can never quite decide whether the heron is a welcome garden visitor.  Our next door neighbour thinks not, but then his ponds have goldfish in them!  The heron will perch on our fence eyeing them up and then the poor things hide at the bottom of the pond for days, too scared to even come up for their food.  When the house whose garden runs parallel to the end of ours decided to install a series of raised ponds to house koi-carp, we were most entertained by the heron sitting on the roof our their house thinking that all its Christmases had come at once!  In terms of our pond, it’s the frogs and newts that they like.  Sadly many a poor frog has returned to the place of his birth and to his mate only to become heron breakfast!  I find it fascinating to watch the heron stalking, poised and statuesque, but when they jab down to catch their prey, I’m always convinced that they are going to pierce the pond liner and then where would we be?


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All of a flutter

This month I am simply spoilt for choice in terms of topics to write about, such is the fullness and speed at which the garden develops in April and May, and especially this year in the amazing weather we have been experiencing.  Even as I type, the aroma of the first barbecues of the season is just reaching me and it is only April!

Since last month, we have been really busy.  The pergola is complete but I could move on to tell you about the new border which began to emerge during our week off work at the end of March, equally I could eulogise about the tulips that have been really spectacular this year, or I could tell you about the wonderful butterflies that have been entertaining us over the past sunny weeks.
I have decided to plump for the butterflies.  Last weekend, in less than an hour, we observed no less than seven different species fluttering around the garden.  It began with a Comma, a r33133577124_c0dea7542d_zegular visitor that appears early each Spring and loves to sun itself on the pergola.  The change in pergola has made no difference, the Comma butterflies (and there were at least two of them) still love the flat wood surface for taking a rest.  Having said that, they seem to be the butterfly less intimidated by human beings as I have often been landed on!

33592175560_38c3dbe2ec_zThis end of the garden seems equally popular with Red Admirals and at one point last weekend we had two Commas and two Red Admirals performing an elaborate quadrille in the sky.  The Red Admirals also seem particularly drawn to the pond and frequently rest on the marsh marigolds, I assume to sun themselves but may be to take nectar?

33125055743_5347f32300_mMost of our butterflies arrive in pairs or more but the Speckled Wood seems to be rather a loner.  Almost always to be found on the Choisya or occasionally on Lilac leaves, I have only ever seen one at a time and they also seem quite shy, never staying still long enough for a photograph.

The Holly Blues are probably the most numerous but also the smallest of the butterflies we see each year.  They have also got the year off to a prolific start as we saw at least four.  As their name suggests, they are drawn to the holly bushes but they do seem to spread their territory right across the garden and are as likely to be seen up near the house as they are in the depths of the border.

I will confess to finding white butterflies hard to identify.  Unless they are side by side, how do you tell a small white apart from a large white?  However, last weekend I definitely saw a Small White – it was really small and delicate!  In fact, I’m not sure that we actually saw a Large White, the wonderfully named Pieris Brassicae – brassicas equal members of the cabbage family – yes, this is the Cabbage White!

Another white butterfly that we saw and which is absolutely delightful is the Orange Tip.  Easy to identify as its name suggests, a couple very obligingly stayed still on a leaf long enough for us to observe the dark spot within each orange patch on the wing tips.

So that’s six species, or potentially seven, and that’s without mentioning the Brimstone that has been a regular visitor since the first sunny days of Spring.  Rather confusingly, there is a Brimstone moth as well as a Brimstone butterfly and, according to my trusty butterfly book, they look awfully similar!  However, I am pretty convinced we are seeing the butterfly as it has a fresher, pale yellowy green colour.

All of this might sound like I know what I’m talking about when it comes to identifying butterflies but, to be honest, I don’t and I find it really difficult!  I signed up for a butterfly count a few years ago and spent a silly amount of time trying to navigate the Collins Wild Guide to Butterflies and Moths – it was incredibly difficult.  I concluded that the bee count was much easier!  Apart from the Peacock butterfly, I think it would be true to say that we have seen every butterfly that I am actually capable of recognising and naming over the past week!  So if you see any more butterflies around the area, please don’t ask me any difficult questions about them.

Seeing so many species of butterfly in the garden has been very rewarding.  Apart from the occasional very careful limited sprinkling of so-called environmentally friendly slug pellets, we have not put any chemicals on our garden for at least fifteen years.  I can’t help thinking that this may be one of the reasons we are now such a butterfly-friendly garden.  We have also made a conscious effort to purchase plants that are either bee and/or butterfly friendly – the two often go together.  However, I tend to assume this is more related to summer flowering plants than the Spring bulbs but clearly nature thinks differently.  Either way, they are all a very welcome sight on a warm, sunny afternoon.