In recent days the Swifts are arriving back in Ealing! We have pretty much completed phase one of our Swift project, with about 60 boxes already up and ready for inspection by adult breeding pairs who have returned to find their traditional nest site no longer present or accessible. As well as first year breeding birds looking to set up home.
If anyone would like Swift nest boxes installed as we reach phase two of the project, then drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, street address and whether you’ve seen swifts or know they are breeding nearby.
For efficiency and cost saving with our contractor we are looking to find Swift champions who will recruit 5-10 neighbours on their street or in the immediate vicinity who would each host 1-3 boxes on their houses. And a calling system or two on each street as well. We hope to get phase two complete by July when young birds will start inspecting potential nest cavities for when they return in 2023.
Phase three will be the individuals who have already been in touch who want boxes they already have erected on their house only, or wish to host one or two of our boxes on their own home. If you can be the Swift champion for your neighbourhood and offer a home for lots of boxes then we can get to you quicker. So get in that neighbourhood Whatsapp or Facebook group and gauge interest.
We would love to host more boxes in Acton, Northolt, Greenford and Southall so offers from these areas will now be prioritised.
More info here:
Also as always happy to answer questions in comments, but please do read the article first
(from the song, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, originally by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers.)
It’s just after five in the morning and I’ve been up an hour. It’s getting lighter by the minute and getting noisier, too. I’m an early bird today because I’m sound recording the dawn chorus, on International Dawn Chorus Day, 1 May 2022. And it sounds sublime.
On my garden terrace, which overlooks Hanger Hill Park, I’ve set up a pair of microphones running to a sound recorder in the house. I’m inside, with the recorder, to keep warm although it is a very mild morning. The main reason is so as not to add any of me to the recording. I just want the birds as they make themselves heard over the sound of the A40. Even at dawn on a Sunday morning the sound of the A40 is there. Ordinarily, when I’m in the garden, I tune out the sound of the road that is about half a mile away. Microphones, however, can’t do that and hear all. But the sound of the vehicles making their way in and out of London is also part of the recording. The birds live with the A40: it’s an urban dawn chorus. They will sing whether it’s there or not. But why are they singing in the first place? They are not singing for me….
The dawn chorus commences about an hour before sunrise and not all of the birds start singing at the same time as if from a musical director’s cue. If I overlooked Warren Farm, one of the first to start singing would be skylarks – there’s some truth to the saying, “up with the lark.” Hanger Hill Park doesn’t have any skylarks but there are plenty of robins, dunnocks, blackbirds and song thrushes to start the chorus off. Corvids join in and smaller, more delicate, birds such as warblers and wrens that are more sensitive to a chilly dawn pipe up when the singing is well underway. Even tawny and little owls may join in along with rhythmical accompaniment from great spotted woodpeckers as they drum in support. (Males hammer against dead trees and other resonant objects to proclaim territory ownership. One regularly uses a nearby ‘phone mast.)
As Dawn’s rosy fingers put the stars to flight it’s still pretty dark and foraging for food is difficult. What better time to sing for a mate or reinforce territory ownership? Singing in broad daylight can be dangerous because it risks the attentions of a predator. It’s best to advertise in dim light before the singer’s position is betrayed. The air is often still and more humid at dawn allowing birdsong to travel much further. (It seems to make the A40’s presence more apparent, too!) As the light strengthens the dawn chorus diminishes as birds drift off on the hunt for food. Singing is hard work and depletes energy reserves which may be at a low ebb after a night’s roost. It is the fittest, best-fed males who sing the strongest, loudest, longest and most impressive song. Females choose a mate who sings best, because such a male is more likely to be good at raising chicks, to have a good territory, or to pass successful genes to their young. In many species, once the female has been attracted, the male will sing less often. A bird that sings on and on, late into the season, is probably a lonely ‘bachelor’ who has failed to attract a mate or perhaps an already paired-up male looking to hook up with another female as with dunnocks with their notoriously complicated ‘love lives.’
The dawn chorus is well worth getting up for or, if you are a night-clubbing, gig-going raver delaying getting into bed for! Listen to the dawn chorus stereo recording that I made, perhaps in its entirety (it’s just over 45 minutes) or just dip in and out. Whichever way you listen simply enjoy nature’s songsters. They will gladden your heart.
The recording was made with a matched pair of AKG C451E microphones, with CK1 capsules, in Rycote Softie windshields. The microphones were arranged as a spaced pair. The digital recorder was a Marantz PMD661 and the file format was WAV with a sampling rate of 48kHz at 24bits. The listening mp3 file is barely edited – faded in and out only.
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.
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.
Long time Ealing Wildlife Group member and nature photographer extraordinaire Nigel Bewley has put together two photography tutorials for us! This one is about Birds in Flight and the next one is Wildlife in its Environment. Thanks Nigel!
Getting To Grips With Photographing Birds In Flight
Start with Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority.
Select a shutter speed fast enough to “freeze” the bird’s wings in your photograph. Go for at least 1/1000th of a second to 1/2000th of a second. Even faster is better, if possible.
Select an aperture of around f/8. This aperture is likely to be the lens’s “sweet spot” where it is sharpest and you will also get a decent depth of field.
Set an ISO that will allow for the above combinations of shutter and aperture. On a bright and sunny day, start with an ISO of 250.
The most accurate focus point is the central point but it’s tricky to keep this centred on the bird. Activate all of the focus points or at least a cluster in the centre of the frame. Set your camera’s focus to continuous focus. The camera will continuously focus with the flight of the bird. Canon calls this function “AI Servo”. Nikon calls it AF-C or Continuous Servo.
Your camera’s meter will be trying to expose for the bright sky. The bird that you are trying to photograph is not as bright as the sky so dial in around +1 EV of exposure to fool the meter into exposing for the bird and not the sky. If you are photographing a white bird such as a swan, you may need to dial in around -1 EV to stop the bird “burning out” in the photograph.
Look for a plus/minus button and dial in under or over exposure compensation
The dark plumaged lapwing needed +1 EV but the bright, pale barn owl needed -1 EV for a correct exposure
Lots of practice in the garden or, if lock down allows, in the park.
A summer BBQ to thank all the hard-working volunteers who come along to Costons and to other volunteering events to help us out. Further details will be provided nearer the time. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading...
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