House Sparrows – On our north facing wall we have two house sparrow terraces each of which has 3 nest boxes and a neighbouring house has many suitable places under its eaves for nesting. In January 2019 around 25 sparrows come down to feed on sunflower hearts and suet pellets thrown out or vie with goldfinches on the hanging seed feeders. Being gregarious the sparrows gather in an old evergreen Loniceranitida hedge intermingled with ivy just outside our back door, which every so often bursts into a cacophony of chirrups; every one of the sparrows seemingly has something to say. What are they doing in there? Squabbling for the best perch, chatting up prospective mates? We don’t know but we do know how important that hedge is to these birds. It’s not smart or modern but no matter, it is part of their habitat and provides safe dense cover and a good place to roost on cold nights and we wouldn’t be without it.
The House sparrow is a UK Bird of Conservation Concern and on the Red List. The BTO reports that house sparrow populations in the UK have declined by nearly 71% since 1977. There are 67 birds on the red list including grey partridge, lapwing, cuckoo, skylark, starling, song and mistle thrush, linnet, and yellowhammer.
National Nest Box Week; 14th -21st February 2019. Are you thinking of putting up a nest box? If so the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) is the place to go for advice on what to look for when buying a box, where to place it and how to look after it. There are also plans and instructions for making your own. See www.bto.org/about-birds/nnbw for more information.
For the past two years I have been monitoring a colony of House Martins in Lower Froyle as part of the British Trust for Ornithology’s House Martin survey. The aim is to shed light on how the UK population is faring and what might be affecting them. Over a thousand people across the country are taking part in the BTO survey, submitting records from over 4,600 nests. The Froyle site – our house – has over 20 nests, putting it in the top 3% of all sites being surveyed based purely on nest numbers.
Considering House Martins nest under the eaves of many houses across the country, relatively little is known about them. We know something about their numbers, a little about their diet, but hardly anything about their social life. Precise locations where they winter in Africa are not clear, largely because tracking devices are not yet available that can be carried by such a little bird. Some birds have been ringed but only a few have been recovered in Winter, all in Africa. The oldest recorded bird is 15 years.
My first House Martin sighting in 2017 came on 16th April with the first arrivals after their long trip from Africa. Around 20 birds returned to the Froyle site this year. Numbers have gradually decreased in the 13 years we have lived here. In mid-May we had some rain following a lengthy dry spell for this time of year. This signalled the start of repairs to nests weather damaged during Winter and three new nests were started. A thousand beak sized mud pellets are needed to construct a complete nest. Less than 50% of the Froyle nests were occupied at the time, so the need for additional nests is not clear.
House Martins have 2 or 3 broods during their time in the UK between April and September. One of my challenges doing the survey is trying to differentiate the young from the adults as they fly from and to nests. All the birds are black on top while the youngsters have brownish grey rather than white underneath, but they are so small and move at such speed that a clear identification is often tricky! I hope my observation skills will prove better tuned this year.
The House Martins are active much of the day, but the best times to see them are early mornings and in the evenings when they appear particularly active at varying heights catching insects. Also between May and August we are fortunate to be able to see (and hear) Swifts chasing around the sky. The sight of House Martins and Swifts sharing the sky on a warm sunny evening is one of Froyle’s finest wildlife spectacles during the Summer months.
Butterflies not only brighten our gardens with movement and colour but also, along with moths, provide vital food supplies for other species especially birds and bats. We can help by providing nectar for adults and in some cases food plants for the larvae. To see notes from a Froyle garden click on the link ‘On the wild side, A flutter-by summer’.
NECTAR PLANTS (a selection of garden and wild flowers)- Primrose, Chionodoxa, Pussy Willow, Bluebell, Aubrietia, Hyacinth, Cuckoo Flower, Forget-me-not, Perennial Wallflower – Bowles Mauve, Honesty, Sweet Rocket – Hesperis matronalis, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lavender, Marjoram, Bramble, Mint, Hyssop, Perennial Pea – Lathyrus latifolius, Hebe, Buddleia, Verbena bonariensis, Field Scabious , Hemp Agrimony, Teasel, Phlox, Ice plant- Sedum spectabile, Cone Flower, Inula hookeri, Michaelmas Daisy. Annuals include Candytuft, Tithonia, and Single dahlias. Flowering Ivy is an important late season nectar source for many insects including the Red Admiral. It’s a larval food plant of the Holly Blue butterfly and the Brimstone will hibernate in it. Birds find shelter, build nests amongst it and eat the berries in winter. The juice from rotting windfall fruit is often a magnet for Comma and Red Admiral.
Aim to provide a continuous source of nectar from early spring to late autumn. Butterflies seek out warmth so try and position your nectar plants in sunny areas sheltered from the wind. Many of the plants will also attract other invertebrates including Moths, Honey Bees, Bumble Bees, Solitary Bees and Hoverflies.
LARVAL FOOD PLANTS – The adult female must search for the right food plants to lay her eggs. The Peacock seeks out Nettle, the only plant her caterpillars (larva) will eat. Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Red Admiral are the other nettle feeders. Cabbage Whites, can be tempted away from our brassicas by planting Nasturtiums. The Holly Blue lays on Holly in the spring and Ivy in the autumn and the Orange tip on Sweet Rocket, Honesty, Ladies Smock and Garlic Mustard –Brimstone larvae will only eat Buckthorn or Alder Buckthorn. Again these plants need to be in sunny sheltered areas and of course chemicals should be avoided.
SPECIES TO LOOK OUT FOR IN OUR GARDENS – Brimstone, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Red Admiral, are the first species on the wing in spring having hibernated as adults. By May Holly Blue, Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Small Copper, Speckled Wood, Large and Small White (collectively known as Cabbage Whites) will be flying and perhaps the migrant Painted Lady. Others to watch for during the year are Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Large and Small Skipper, Gatekeeper and Ringlet. These are the most likely species to turn up in our Froyle gardens but others could make an appearance. A list of the 35 species recorded in the Parish can be seen here.
BRITISH BUTTERFLIES – There are 59 species of butterfly found in Britain, 46 in Hampshire, most require exacting habitat conditions to exist which includes an abundance of the larval food plant. These food plants differ from species to species and comprise specific native flowers, grasses trees and shrubs. Nectar is also required for the adults giving them vital energy to fly and breed. Some of the richest habitats are traditionally managed woodlands, chalk downlands, meadows and heathlands but vast areas have been lost in the past 60 years with agricultural intensification and habitat destruction taking their toll. Consequently invertebrates dependant on these plant communities are seeing worrying declines which include three quarters of UK butterfly species. Some butterflies are less particular in their requirements – hedgerows, copses, flowery field margins, track and roadside verges all play an important role in their survival but wild flowers have declined here too. For more information see Butterfly Conservation.
We have lived in Froyle now for nearly 12 years, relatively new residents compared to many, but every day I am appreciative of how lucky we are to live here, with the countryside and wildlife on our doorstep. This was highlighted on a recent two mile dog walk around Lower Froyle.
It was a gloriously sunny morning. We left our resident house martins behind in the nests around our house. After their long journey back from Africa we are hoping they will be successfully breeding, to help keep up, and perhaps swell, their ‘amber listed’ population. Shortly afterwards we encountered a Red Kite, another ‘amber listed’ bird, magnificently gliding low over the houses and gardens. ‘Amber list’ includes species where there is falling populations or contracting ranges.
Whilst walking close to the quarry, Skylarks were in songflight, some so high in the air that they were barely visible. This is a relatively common occurrence here, but not typical generally for the UK now as Skylarks are on the ‘red list’ of endangered or vulnerable species. In the hedgerow we heard the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song of a Yellow Hammer, another species on the red list.
A Roe deer doe was standing in the shade of a tree at the edge of a field behind long grass. Luckily the wind must have been in its favour as the dogs were unaware of it. It remained there just watching us, perhaps it had a kid nearby.
As usual we stopped to admire the view from the thoughtfully placed ‘tree bench’ at the top of Hussey’s Lane. On returning down the lane, a Grass Snake slithered back into the vegetation at the edge of the track, having been disturbed from basking in the sun by our footsteps. A Blackcap sang its melodic song further down the track.
Coming across the Recreation Field, we admired the blooms of the ‘Wildflower area’. Once back in our garden, the hedgehog droppings were evidence of a visitor or two the night before, presumably consuming the food that we put out for them each evening.
Whilst I appreciate this is by no means an exhaustive list of Froyle wildlife, I feel very fortunate to be able to experience the sorts of encounters mentioned above.
With March recorded as the coldest for 50 years there was not much incentive to get cracking in the garden. Nevertheless things were beginning to stir outside with a brimstone butterfly through the garden on the 5th March and what a welcome sight that was. Crocus, hellebore, winter flowering honeysuckle and lungwort kept the bees happy when it was warm enough for them to venture out, the latter a favourite of the hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes (a solitary bee). By the end of Mayorange tip, holly blue, peacock, comma, large and green-veined white butterflies had been noted (primrose, sweet rocket, honesty, forget-me-nots and Bowles Mauve perennial wallflower helping to provide nectar) and eggs of the orange tip found on garlic mustard and honesty. Everything was a few weeks behind and the seemingly endless cold spring continued….
June was largely cold; the winter quilt was still on the bed! However the brimstones had been busy laying eggs on buckthorn but only a meadow brown had been added to the butterfly list. A pretty poor year so far for many insects with the knock on effect that birds had to search even harder for anything they could find to feed their young. Swift Conservation reported that swifts were dropping dead from the sky through starvation across parts of Europe. In our patch sparrows keenly searched the roses for greenfly to feed their young – a good reason not to use insecticide.
A week into July and things begin to hot up, moths with intriguing names – ruby tiger, peach blossom, elephant hawk-moth conveniently settle on the back wall under our house light and have a brief moment of fame as we turn our cameras on them. By the end of Julysmall white, small tortoiseshell, large skipper, red admiral, gatekeeper and ringlet butterflies had made an appearance. Brimstones, known for sipping nectar from runner beans and perennial pea, also used buddleia, lavender, hyssop and the lovely orange annual Tithonia rotundifolia. Gatekeepers with shorter proboscis preferred the large patches of marjoram – glad I didn’t reduce the size of them as intended, this plant also attracted many tiny day flying mint moths – Pyrausta aurata whose larvae feed on this and mint. Our wild field scabious is growing in completely the wrong place reaching 5 foot high in our fertile vegetable plot (there’s not an awful lot of veg.- have we lost the plot?) This plant is a favourite with bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths and birds like the seed. Late night forays down the garden with a torch reveal moths on field scabious, hemp agrimony and buddleia. The garden is baked dry, no slugs or snails and the earthworms have gone deep underground. A pair of blackbirds desperately searching for food for their young are grateful for extra morsels including meaty cat food which also helps to keep 3 hedgehogs going. Topping up the bird baths and water bowls a daily task.
Mid August, the weather is lovely and the garden overgrown. A huge teasel scratches us as we pass by but is attracting butterflies and bees and goldfinch will be attracted to its seed later so it stays. The Hollyhocks are so tall we can hardly see the bumblebees foraging in the flowers. The largest hoverfly found in Britain, Volucella zonaria a hornet mimic, is attracted to field scabious and buddleia and looked mighty fearsome but like all hoverflies has no sting, is harmless to us and a useful pollinator. Only the marmalade hoverfly was seen in any numbers with 50 or so attracted to nettle-leaved bellflowers. A Male wool-carder Anthidium manicatum (solitary bee) feistily patrols a patch of Wall Germander Teucrium chamaedrys in the front garden and anotherguards lambs ears in the back. Mesmerising to watch, they dart and hover over their territory and pounce on any other bees regardless of species wrestling them off the plants – The pouncing technique is also used to mate but the pair remain on the plant. The females collect hairs from lamb’s ears Stachys lanata and other hairy plants for use in their brood cells.
But back to the butterflies and everyone is remarking on the number and variety in their gardens. Lots of peacocks and more small tortoiseshell in our garden than for many years but numbers still way down from the highs of the early 1990’s. Whites are everywhere, dancing over the buddleia, old English lavender, and Verbena bonariensis. Single dahlias, buddleia, borage, tithonia, all good bee plants, are keeping us busy dead heading. By the end of Augustspeckled wood made an appearance and brown argus, common blue and silver-washed fritillary butterflies had dropped by, if only briefly, to take nectar. Early September and the spectacular day flying hummingbird hawk-moth arrives, zipping like lightning between flowers high up on the Beijing Buddleia, evading all attempts to get a passable photograph. A warm autumn could see red admirals and commas attracted to Michaelmas daisies, fallen rotting fruit and ivy flowers, the latter also a magnet for moths, bees, hoverflies and wasps. It’s been a joy to share our garden with butterflies and other creatures – here’s to next year. For ideas on what to plant see ‘Gardening for Butterflies’.