Category: Birds

10 Ways to Make your Garden a Winter Haven for Wildlife

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!

Photographing Birds in Your Garden

Long time EWG member and nature photographer extraordinaire Nigel Bewley has put together two new photography tutorials for us! This one is about photographing birds in your garden and the next one is about macro photography. Check out his other tutorials Birds in Flight and Photographing Wildlife in its Environment. Thanks Nigel!

First, attract birds to your garden! – Provide bird food in regularly cleaned feeders positioned near to shrubs or trees high enough to be out of a cat’s leap and fresh, clean water in a bird bath. Check out the ‘how to attract birds and wildlife’ advice from the RSPB.

Your garden is a wildlife stage – If birds come into your garden it can be straightforward to photograph them. With a little craft and guile you can get some very pleasing shots.

Set the scene – I use interesting and natural looking sticks and twigs as well as larger pieces of wood to serve as perches for garden birds. These can be positioned on a workbench – the vice is really useful, tied to something in the garden like railings or a garden chair, or otherwise bodged somehow. I have a couple of articulated arms with jaws at each end that are really useful. Position perches near food: the birds will soon come in.

Get to know your birds – Watch their behaviour. They may prefer to be very close to shrubs or other cover, or a particular sort of perch in a particular place in the garden.

Use props – Consider using props for the birds to perch on. Clay pots, interesting looking watering cans and tool handles etc. Use your imagination to set up an interesting scene.

Go natural – Birds will use natural perches, of course. Keep observing and get to know their behaviour and favourite spots in the garden at different times of the day.

Choose an interesting background – I like plain, out of focus backgrounds without any intruding clutter. If you are using moveable perches, do just that and move the perches so that the background is uncluttered and a few feet at least behind the perch in order to throw it out of focus. Move the perches around or take up a position to vary the background. If a shrub is in flower, make use of that. Sometimes moving the perch or camera a just a little makes a big difference to the composition and the background.

Clock the light – My garden faces east, which means that the sun is behind me in the morning and I’m looking into the bright light in the afternoon and evening. Both front-lit (with the sun behind you) and back-lit (with the sun behind your subject) photographs can work really well. Side lighting can work well, too, to bring out texture in the feathers.

Find a spot – I photograph from both inside the house and from the garden. Often I shoot through an open door and sometimes through the glass. Window glass isn’t optically great and can soften the shot and it must be clean! If the door is open, I’ll be inside the house by a few feet and largely ignored if I stay still or move slowly. If I’m in the garden I’ll usually sit or stand covered with a bag hide. This is a like an unstructured tent which covers me and my camera with a hole for the lens and a netting window for me to see out. It can get hot!

Cameras and lenses and such – One of the benefits of photographing garden birds is that they can come quite close, so you won’t need a very long lens. A 100mm to 400mm zoom is ideal, even a standard 50mm lens can be used to good effect but won’t let you ‘fill the frame’. A tripod can be a good idea because you can set the camera up, pre-focus on the perch where the bird will land, make some test exposures and then simply fire the shutter when the time is right. One you have pre-focused, switch the lens to manual focus so that the focus is locked in. You can always tweak the focus manually if necessary.

Otherwise, use auto-focus set to subject tracking. Canon calls this function “AI Servo”. Nikon calls it AF-C or Continuous Servo. As long as you have the camera’s focus point or points on the bird, the camera will do its best to keep it focused.

Set a fast shutter speed whether you are hand-holding or using a tripod. The bird will sometimes oblige and sit still, but it’s usually a fast-moving ball of feathers. Use a minimum of 1/500sec and the faster the better to freeze the action.

Set an aperture of around f/5.6 or f/8 to achieve a good depth of field to get the bird in focus without having the background anywhere near sharp. For an uncluttered, blurred background try and keep a separation of at least three feet between it and the perch. More is better.

Try setting your ISO to Auto. The camera will continuously adjust it’s sensitivity to the changing conditions.

On an overcast day, typical settings would be 1/500sec at f/8 at ISO 500. Bright sun these might be 1/1000sec, f/8, ISO125. Use aperture priority to dial in a particular value or shutter priority to put the onus on speed. I always shoot in manual: I dial in the shutter speed and aperture I want and with the ISO in Auto, the camera looks after the exposure.

Set the camera’s drive to continuous high-speed to increase your chances of getting a ‘keeper’. A downside to this technique is that the shutter may make a bit of noise and this could scare the bird.

Finally, always keep a camera handy. You just never know what might come in to your garden and if you have a camera nearby you stand a chance of photographing it.

Keep practising and keep well and safe.

Nigel Bewley

Ealing’s new peregrine falcons

Female Peregrine Falcon P4V (Photo: Steve Morey)

A lot goes on behind the scenes at Ealing Wildlife Group that isn’t posted publicly. For several years now, we’ve been watching, monitoring and keeping tabs on some of the rarer wildlife species in or near the borough of Ealing. Where threatened or endangered species may be prone to disturbance or persecution we’ve made it our priority to keep an eye, check in with other local experts, get in touch with landowners, developers and the ranger team to make sure that vulnerable wildlife is protected. And for several years now we’ve been watching a few pairs of peregrine falcons on the periphery or just outside the Borough getting on with their daily lives, and in a couple of cases breeding successfully. All with the hope that some day we’d see this incredible raptor species move in to Ealing proper, and expand their range.

Well, the last couple of months has seen a rising number of reports of peregrine falcon sightings around Ealing Hospital. And sure enough, there’s a pair roosting on the West face most days. The falcon, or female bird, much bigger than the male known as a tiercel, has a ring on each leg. On her right, a small silver British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ring. And more excitingly, on her left leg, an orange ring with a more obvious alphanumerical code. Our talented photographers have been out checking on them and finally we received a photo confirming her ring number from Steve Morey. Using that unique identifier, we got in touch with the licensed ringer who fitted this ring. It turns out our falcon was born in a quarry near Farnham in Surrey in 2018, and ringed as a well grown chick with her two siblings on the 28th May 2018 by a BTO licensed ringer. It wasn’t recorded whether she was a male or female at the time as the chicks were all similar in size. But now we can tell she is a female as she is much larger than her mate, a trait common in birds of prey.

History

Peregrine falcons are a globally widespread bird of prey, traditionally occupying habitats like sea cliffs and preying on the ancestor of domestic pigeons, the rock dove. In the 1950’s and 1960’d the global population crashed due to accumulation of agricultural pesticides in the food chain, namely DDT. Because they are apex predators, feeding on birds who in turn feed on agricultural grains and insects, the levels of these harmful chemical built up in peregrine tissues and caused breeding failure. They weren’t rendered infertile, but their egg shells became very thin and often broke, resulting in a global failure of the population to successfully raise chicks. When the use of these pesticides was banned enough peregrines had just clung on to make a slow recovery over the following decades. In many respects, it was the release of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 which shone a light on the destruction of wildlife by the agrochemical industry which saved the peregrine falcon and many other species. She died in 1964 aged 56 so didn’t live to see the wildlife population recovery she prompted, but her book is recognised as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

Tall buildings and feral pigeon populations in urban areas nowadays mimic their natural habitat quite closely and as the population has recovered we’ve seen a movement of these magnificent raptors into cities and towns, where they find suitable ‘rock ledges’ to nest on and plentiful food supplies. But they are still persecuted by gamekeepers, racing pigeon fanciers and egg collectors. There is also a lucrative market for peregrine chicks to be used as falconry birds in the Middle East. So it’s important that their nest sites are protected, and in some cases where they are very vulnerable, kept entirely secret.

Tiercel or male falcon (photo: Rachael Webb)

Public disclosure?

Many conservation bodies have discovered that sometimes the best way to protect vulnerable species is not to hide them away however, it’s to tell the public all about them and generate a community of people around them who will advocate for them, monitor them and feel a sense of ownership for ‘their’ birds. And in this case with our new peregrine pair on such a public building as Ealing Hospital, we feel that’s exactly the right approach. They are already in full view of Ealing residents. They are an apex predator, a great indicator species for the health of our local ecosystems and bird life, and what a fantastic species to engage the public with nature. Literally the fastest animal on the planet, with speeds of up to 200mph in a hunting stoop to capture other birds in flight. So let’s celebrate our newest wild residents!

How can we help?

We have been in touch with several other building managers or developments to discuss installing a nesting box or platform on rooftops in Ealing, and now have contacted the facilities manager at Ealing Hospital too. Luckily, they are already aware of the falcon pair and being careful not to disturb them,. One of the benefits they’ve seen already is the reduction of feral pigeon numbers around the hospital which are unfortunately a health hazard with their droppings if they occur in high numbers.

We’re hoping to collaborate to install a nest box in early 2021 to help these birds breed here and establish the hospital as a permanent breeding site. 2021 would be about the right time for our female P4V to breed for the first time, in her third year. This year the pair seem to roosting on the hospital and establishing their bond ready for breeding next year hopefully.

Falcon calling for her new mate (photo: Steve Morey)

Naming the pair…

One of the ways we can engage the community with wildlife conservation in the borough and take an interest in protecting these birds, and by association our important habitats nearby, is to name the pair and make them something on an Ealing wildlife mascot. We’ve been busy collecting suggestions on our Facebook group, so now’s the time to put it to a public poll

Have your say here:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/LPCK8VP

What shall we call our Ealing peregrine falcons?

Male or Tiercel Peregrine Falcon (Photo: Rachael Webb)

Blue Tit Nest Box: Chapter One

Having treated myself to a camera bird box for Christmas in 2018 I was disappointed to get no visitors to it on my 4th floor balcony in 2019, but can’t say I was very surprised. Too high for a discerning tit or sparrow, I resigned myself. This Spring I took it to my pal Nigel’s place, where Blue Tits regularly avail  of his nest boxes to raise a brood. And he kindly agreed to host the box for the 2020 season, as well as edit and post any footage we managed to capture.

Well for the last few weeks we’ve been on tenterhooks as we’ve been teased by a pair of Great Tits at first, soon followed by a charming little Blue Tit pair inspecting the box and deciding whether or not it might make a nice home.

Let me tell you things have well and truly heated up in the Blue Tit family planning department in recent days, and nest building is underway.

So everyone’s in lock down, confined to their homes for the most part. Every Nature Nerd’s favourite programme, BBC Springwatch, is hanging in the balance of whether it airs or not this year. So we thought it was vitally important to provide you with regular updates of our own little Springwatch experiment here.

Check out the action to date in this, our first #EWGtitcam video, and stay tuned as we’ll be providing more footage of this industrious little pair’s antics in the weeks to come.

Stay safe and well folks, and enjoy.

Sean

Bird Feeder Cam Episode 2: An exciting new visitor!

One of my absolute favourite British birds, the Jay, recently visited my allotment bird feeders. Normally elusive and annoyingly shy, this surprisingly exotic looking member of the crow family’s behaviour is captured beautifully on the motion sensor camera trap.

It also captured a rather familiar vocalisation, which was news to me. Far different to the usual screeching call I associate with this bird, flying off ahead when startled by my approach.

Check it out…

Bird Feeder Cam: Episode 1

I set up a trail cam (or camera trap) at a bird feeding station on my allotment, to see what birds and other creatures are coming to visit when I’m not there.

Hopefully we discover some interesting species. I’ve seen some pretty shy species, so this should give us good views.

Stay tuned!

Sean

Little Owls on the Allotment

Went to check on the chickens on their second night in the new coop on the allotments and heard some strange noises coming from an Oak on the far end. I know we had a Little Owl as I’d spotted it a few weeks ago, but my neighbour found it dead having been caught up in netting.

Delighted with what I discovered, watch and see…

Sean