I’m trying something new, a night sky guide for us city dwellers. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Ealing and most of West London is very light polluted, on the Bortle Scale ( a scale that ranks light pollution) we are a Bortle class 8 out of 9. Class 1 is true dark skies like you get in the middle of the Sahara or the Atlantic Ocean and class 9 is the greatest amount of light pollution (think central London, NYC, Hong Kong.) As you can see, this is not an ideal place to see deep sky objects or anything faint. However having said that, there are things to see in our skies!
The Winter Circle
The lovely British weather
One thing I should mention is the weather. The weather can really ruin a celestial event if it takes place over a few nights and you end up with clouds the whole time. Fortunately, the Winter circle is something that is in the sky all winter so you can still get a chance to see it at some point even though it feels like the clouds are never going to go away!
The Stars of the Winter Circle
The Winter Circle (or Hexagon) is the name of an Asterism that encompases some of the most prominent stars and constellations in the winter night sky. Seen rising in the Southeast and making its way across the southern sky over the course of the night, it consists of Sirius, the dog star of Canis Major and the brightest star in the sky, Rigel, the foot of Orion, Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, Capella in Auriga, Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, and Procyon, the little dog star of Canis Minor. The Pleiades appear to the upper right of the circle and the Milky Way almost perfectly bisects it (that’s not something you will be able to see in Ealing though.) The moon makes a monthly trip though it as do many of the planets, which is something that makes it interesting to observe the whole season.
Deep Sky Objects
There is also one deep sky object you can see from Ealing within the circle, the Orion Nebula found in Orion’s sword. It can be seen with good binoculars and small telescopes, and I even got a snap of it using a telephoto lens. There are loads of nebulae and star clusters in and around the circle, I plan on trying to observe them all from here and see what I can see. I will keep you posted if I find anything good! Please let me know in the comments if you have had any luck with any deep sky objects here in Ealing!
A few other exciting things to see in December provided the weather cooperates!
As the growing season winds down, people are starting to tidy their gardens and prepare them for winter. For wildlife friendly gardens and gardeners however, things are a little different, it’s far less tidy, and far better for the wildlife! Here are 10 things a wildlife gardener can do to prepare the garden for winter that benefit both the garden and the wildlife.
1. Clean feeders, feed the birds!
It’s always important to keep your bird feeders as clean as possible and this time of year is a good time to do it as it the feeders will be very busy over the next few months! Then fill the feeders with fat balls, fat blocks, coconut shells filled with fat, fat pellets, fat filled with berries, mealworms, peanuts! Lots of fat! Don’t use the plastic nets though as birds can get caught in them with tragic consequences! (Also we don’t need more plastic) Don’t forget seeds and fruit, and I was today years old when I found out you can leave out cheese and bacon bits as well (probably go sparingly so you don’t attract too many rats!) A firm favourite with my birds are sunflowers seeds, I think just about everyone likes them, I get the shelled ones, waaaay less mess! Don’t get cheap seed mixes though, they are often made with cheap grains that are too big for anything other than pigeons to eat, I learned this the hard way!
2. Keep water available!
Keep small bowls of water on the ground and/or bird baths available as it’s just as important for wildlife to access water in the winter as at any time of the year. If you have a pond and should it ice over (not super likely in London but it could happen), melt a hole in the ice so the critters can get in and out and drink, and to make sure your pond doesn’t become oxygen starved. Use a pan filled with hot water to melt a hole, do not bang on the ice to break it as this sends out painful shockwaves that can hurt wildlife. (I’m imagining being inside a ringing bell, not a pleasant thought!)
3. Watch out for Hibernating Animals!
Check bonfire material for hibernating animals such as toads, hedgehogs, and frogs before lighting! (Better yet only build the bonfire when you are ready to light it, then nothing can get into it) Be careful turning compost as it’s warm and could be full of slow worms, grass snakes, toads, frogs and other lovely things you want in your garden!
4. Make homes for the animals!
Don’t bag up all your leaves, spread them on the flower beds, it’s good for your soil and it provides shelter for frogs, and insects, and gives Blackbirds and thrushes, and Violet Ground Beetles a place to forage for food. Leave some pots and piles of bricks laying around for newts and toads ( they like the greenhouse too so watch out for them if you are tidying, I have frogs in mine!) Make or buy some bug hotels for the leaf cutter bees and other insects such as lacewings and ladybirds, or just drill some holes in a log! Place clay roof tiles in the pond for the frogs and newts that may be overwintering in the pond.
5. Leave the Soil alone!
If you can help it, avoid digging your garden beds, as many spider eggs and insect larvae (especially moths) overwinter in the soil.
6 Plant some Winter Berries!
Shrubs that feed wildlife in winter are great for gardens because they also provide beautiful flowers in the spring and summer, lovely foliage in the Autumn and striking berries and stems in the winter! I wrote another post with a list of native berries here (such as hawthorn, rowan, guelder rose etc) but other good non-native garden shrubs for wildlife are Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Barberry (Berberis), and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) although be careful with the last one, it can get invasive if not carefully controlled!
7. Leave it Wild!
Avoiding trimming ivy and don’t cut hedges until at least March. Both provide much needed food and shelter for overwintering wildlife. Leave all the herbaceous plants untrimmed until early spring. Leave it messy! Many insects overwinter in hollow stems, ladybirds will all snuggle up on a stem for the winter and if there is one thing you really want in your garden, it’s ladybirds! When you do finally cut the stems down in spring, set them aside in stacks until May so the insects can emerge safely.
8. Clean Ponds!
Winter (Oct through January) is the best time to clean your pond as it is the time of lowest activity. However there are still active critters in there so be careful! Always stack the weeds and debris you clear from a pond on the edge for a few days so things can crawl out and back into the water. Having a little poke around and giving some of the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, other invertebrates, newts, frogs, and snails a helping hand back into the water is nice too.
9 . Clean out Nest Boxes!
In late winter clean out the nest boxes for the upcoming spring nesting season. Also be aware that some birds will roost communally in nest boxes in the winter to stay warm, especially wrens and house sparrows so making sure they have nest boxes or roosting pouches in you garden in winter could be very beneficial!
10. Help the Butterflies!
There are five species of butterfly in the UK that hibernate in winter as adults, the brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral. Two of these, the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell usually overwinter in a shed or garage, and if you see them there, leave them be. Sometimes though they will try to hibernate in your house, which would be fine if it didn’t get so warm. When the butterflies get warm they wake up and think it’s spring, and that is not going to be a good time for the poor butterfly when it’s still winter and there is no food in sight. So if you find an awake and confused butterfly in your house, the Scottish Wildlife Trust suggests the following:
The best thing you can do if you see a butterfly flying about in your house in the middle of winter is to help it relocate to a cooler spot. Put it in a cardboard box for a while to calm it down and then leave it in your shed, garage or another suitable location. Somewhere cool and dry is ideal. Remember to set it free when spring arrives!
Laura Preston, Scottish Wildlife Trust
So there it is, ten ways to help make your garden a safe haven for wildlife this winter! You will be rewarded come spring with an abundance of helpful creatures to keep your garden ticking along as well as the knowledge that you are also helping them to survive and thrive when so many are in shocking rates of decline across the country. Gardens make up one of the largest green spaces in the UK so we can have a huge impact on the future of wildlife, one garden at a time!
In the dark cold days of winter, nothing is more cheery in the grey landscape than colourful winter berries dotting the hedgerows. However not only are they beautiful , they provide a vital food source for birds, insects, and mammals when little other food is available. All of the following berries can be found growing wild and in gardens in Ealing. They are a great addition to any garden/greenspace to help the wildlife through the winter! (I realise that several of these are technically not berries, but I will refer to them as such for the sake of convenience)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
You can find hawthorn pretty much everywhere in the Borough, on the sides of the A40, up on Horsenden Hill, the Bunny Park, everywhere. Found in hedgerows the fruits are called Haws and are eaten by loads of migrating birds such as Redwings, Waxwings and Fieldfares. Our natives such as Blackbirds, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Hawfinches, Starlings and many other birds enjoy them too!
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
Rowan is another winter bird favourite, including Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Fieldfare and Waxwing. This feeds more than just birds, caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries as well!
Dog rose (Rosa canina)
These beautiful native hedgerow roses turn into the bright red hips that feed birds such as Thrushes, Blackbirds, Redwing, Fieldfare and Waxwings, which then disperse the seeds in their droppings, and some birds like finches actually eat the seeds!
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
The beautiful plum like drupes of the Blackthorn (called sloes) provide insects, mammals, and larger birds like the thrushes and hawfinches a lovely midwinter feast. Humans also use them for making flavoured gin!
Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
House Sparrows, Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, various Tits, and Starlings, and even mice and foxes eat the berries of the spindle. (It’s poisonous to humans though!). I haven’t seen a lot of spindle in Ealing, but I might just not be looking in the right places though as it’s a sign of ancient woodland. I will keep an eye out for it in our local bits of woodland such as Long Wood, Fox Wood, Horsenden Wood, and Perivale wood. Please let us know in the comments if you spot any out and about!
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Most birds leave these until later in the winter; they eat certain berries at certain times in the winter to ensure they have enough to last until spring. Mistle Thrushes, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Fieldfares and Redwings all eat the berries. However the Mistle Thrushes don’t mess around, they will aggressively guard their berries to prevent all the other birds from getting any! Small mammals like wood mice and dormice also enjoy them.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
This is another high fat, calorie dense berry that the birds leave until late winter when the other berries have dwindled and the ground is still too hard to forage for worms and insects and nothing else is growing. Some of the bird species that enjoy Ivy berries are Thrushes, Blackcaps, Bullfinches, Wood Pigeons, Blackbirds, Doves, Warblers, and Jays. And despite popular belief Ivy does not kill trees!
Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)
Another ancient woodland indicator, the red berries are an important food source for birds, including Bullfinches and Mistle Thrushes. Far from ancient woodland however, the berries are a favourite food of Waxwings coming from Scandinavia who can often be seen scarfing them down in car parks! If anyone knows of a local guelder rose landscaped car park, please comment below so we can all potentially see some Waxwings this winter!
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
I almost didn’t include mistletoe because it is relatively scarce in Ealing (and London in general) but can you talk about winter berries and not mention mistletoe? Mistletoe doesn’t grow as a separate shrub, they are parasites and derive most of their nutrients from their host trees. They particularly like Hawthorn, Lime, Poplar, Sycamore, Ash, and in the UK their favourite is Apple trees. They are hemi parasitical however so they do also photosynthesize. Blackcaps love mistletoe, they eat the pith but wipe the sticky seeds off their bills and onto the tree branches, helping the mistletoe find new hosts trees. Mistle Thrushes (unsurprisingly) also enjoy mistletoe berries.
This Friday Dec 4th at 8pm, join Sean McCormack for an online discussion about a potential reintroduction project of Harvest Mice in Ealing. We’ll be exploring whether we have Europe’s smallest rodent species in the Borough, how we might find out with some help from our members, whether we still have suitable habitat and why such a project might be beneficial to people and biodiversity.
This is hopefully the first in a series of talks exploring rewilding and nature conservation in Ealing.
There are 100 spaces; first come, first served. Please do join live so you can take part in the Q&A afterwards. A recording of the session will be posted after for those who missed the live event.
The meeting will be on Zoom, details as follows:
Ealing Wildlife Group is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.