Back Garden Predators

As much of my time is spent at home I’m forever looking out of the window. And over the last few weeks, not only have garden birds been busy feeding but predators too.

Recently I glimpsed something from the corner of my eye. On looking up, there was a female sparrowhawk tucking into a feral pigeon – the poor thing was still alive. I moved slowly to take the photograph when the sparrowhawk was busy, its head down feasting on the pigeon. But something spooked her. She dropped the pigeon and flew onto the decking. Was it me that scared her? The last thing I wanted to do was leave a distraught pigeon maimed and the sparrowhawk go without a meal. I then noticed the neighbour’s cat had landed on a nearby fence. The cat pounced on the flapping pigeon with open wounds and the sparrowhawk flew off. I knew the pigeon was beyond help but couldn’t bear to see the cat ‘playing’ with it. So after much shouting, ‘NO!’ the cat stayed clear. My husband picked up the heavily injured pigeon and put it high up on our ivy clad wall to take its final breath in peace. The next day it had gone. I’d like to say its wing perhaps wasn’t broken and the wounds couldn’t have been so bad and that it made a speedy recovery and flew off. But the truth is, the ivy wall is used as a walk-through by the fox. So maybe this pigeon’s fate was to feed something after all.

The natural world can be cruel and each day in our suburban garden is life or death for so many. I’d never seen a sparrowhawk so close before. Those lit yellow eyes are the giveaway to identify this bird. It’s said as some sparrowhawks age their eyes can turn orangeier. They visit gardens, rural countryside and towns.

The sparrowhawk’s past in the UK is turbulent. DDT and persecution meant numbers fell drastically by the 1950s. After DDT was banned, numbers increased but have been up and down ever since even though the bird is widespread. Sparrowhawks usually live for around four years and normally breed at the age of one. They are one of the UK’s smallest birds of prey and they are top predators but sadly still persecuted despite legal protection.

We have many pigeons and doves that fly around and sit on a neighbour’s rooftop. These are a great meal for the agile sparrowhawk. I discovered when sparrowhawks hunt they can use ambush tactics or fly low and then change direction to capture their prey.

More Predators

We’ve had an abundance of corvids visit the garden over the last couple of months, starting with the magpies. I thought they were going to nest in our silver birch at one point as they were picking at the slim branches high up but it all came to nothing.

The magpies, with their football rattle cry and complete with black and white strip were vocal above the squirrel’s drey in the poplar tree earlier on in the year. I saw a squirrel descend from the tree with something in its mouth as the magpies were ‘clacking’. The squirrel ran through the hedge into the neighbour’s garden and repeated this action several times. Then I noticed the round furry grey thing in the squirrel’s mouth – its young. Was the squirrel taking them to safety? And did it know the birds above were predators for its offsprings? Before cursing the magpies I had to remind myself of events last year, when the squirrel went back and forth through the boundary hedge into a neighbour’s garden. The fourth time I noticed what was in the squirrel’s mouth – a young nestling chick. The interwoven world of nature.

Whilst many people have mixed feelings about magpies they too are just feeding and trying to survive. But one of my favourite corvids is the crow. They have a special place in my heart and my mum’s too. She has fed her resident crows for years and Mr Crow has brought her many gifts including: golf ball, flashing dog collar and supermarket trolley token. Crows are clever birds and can remember human faces, recognise themselves in the mirror and use tools.

Watching the birds can be quite comical. The woodpigeons are messy eaters; I watched them try to swallow a lump of bread. Now I know you’re not supposed to give bread to birds but I occasionally put out the crusts or the end bit of our granary loaf. Sometimes a squirrel will come and take it and other times the magpies and last week a rook! More recently the woodpigeons began throwing it around with their beaks wondering how they could swallow such a large piece. They reminded me of a cartoon – when a character has a bulge in the throat as they swallow. Then down came the cheeky sparrows and took a piece of bread right from under the woodpigeon’s nose.  The corvids however, are the brains of the feasting birds. I’ve watched them tentatively, after years of persecution slowly approach the bread. They looked around for signs of humans; put their claw on the chunk of bread so it stayed in one place, then plucked at it taking mouthfuls. Meanwhile the woodpigeons were still throwing it around and trying to swallow chunks too big for their beaks.

Last week, I heard an almighty cacophony of corvids: crows, magpies and jackdaws. They were loud and close, right above our house. I went outside and discovered why they were so irritated…

A neighbour’s cat was sat on the roof. And none of the corvids were happy with a land predator high up. I tried to take a photograph of them sweeping down divebombing the cat as it cowered. The crows were the most vocal and numerous. They’ll take on anything, no matter of its size. They are birds with grit. And it got me thinking – I’ve had so many setbacks lately, rarely leaving the house and having to use my stick again in the home along with some days struggling to put one foot in front of the other. I find it exhausting physically and mentally, especially as I’m coming up to four years in this state. The dusting myself down and trying to plough on and start again with minuscule progress is hard. But the crows are birds of tenacity, they plough on full of grit and that is how I have to be.

From The Birds To The Bees…

There’s been some activity from the nomad bees (Nomada) – nomad in name and nature. The name stems from the Greek, ‘to wander’. Nomad bees are slender and wasp-like with colourful markings: from yellow and black stripes to black and orange. My recent sighting appears to be the Flavous nomad bee Nomada flava. They’ve been feeding on the forget-me-nots – a great bee plant and hang around our garden steps where the Chocolate mining bee Andrena scotica and the Buffish mining bee Andrena nigroaenea reside.

Nomad bees don’t collect pollen, they’re are cleptoparasite and known as cuckoo bees. They lay their eggs in the nest of solitary bees, namely mining bees (Andrena species) and when hatched, the larvae kills the host larvae or egg and feeds upon the food stores. They then emerge as an adult bee the following year.

But this relationship of cuckoo bee and mining bee has been going on for millennia and it said, if you see cuckoo bees it means there is a healthy population of host bees.

The Red Mason bees Osmia bicornis are now active and have emerged from the release chamber. Above shows the male with their blonde moustaches!

Red Mason bees are one of the best pollinators, especially of fruit trees. They are now traded commercially to help orchard owners with pollination.

You can find bees in the funniest of places in the garden – my parents discovered this male Hairy-footed flower bee Anthophora plumipes in the keyhole of their shed!

If you want to find out more about bees as we’re coming up to World Bee Day May 20th, you can take a look at my Wonderful World of Bees page and Help For Bees.

Enjoy and look out for the birds and the bees where you are!


A Little Patience & Time

Good things come to those who wait as the saying goes and I’ve waited for years for flowers to appear on the berberis.

Just a month before becoming ill in 2018, I started a species identification course and teamed up with a fellow ‘bee enthusiast’. The first module was in May of that year and we counted the abundance of bumblebees on a berberis bush. After discovering this ‘bee magnet’ I got a Berberis darwinii for the garden, common name, Darwin’s barberry. Blossom can be plentiful on this shrub and if visited by honeybees a golden-amber honey is produced.

The small, prickly evergreen remained just a foot or so high for a few years. If I had been well enough to garden, I would have dug it up and moved it – thinking it wasn’t happy in its present place. But nature knows best and all I needed was patience.

It’s taken me four years to get where I am and last month I had a setback – my worst one for some time. No ‘lamp post challenge’ walks. No meeting dog walkers in the street. No leaving the house for a couple of weeks. Physical knock backs affect me mentally and are a constant reminder of what I can’t do whilst the world carries on. I’m not alone of course; there’s a multitude of people with chronic illness and disabilities. And when I’ve been out on my walks there’s an unspoken camaraderie amongst us – A smile, a nod of the head, an exchange of pleasantry with a fellow stick walker, wheelchair or mobility scooter user.  But I’m often torn between thinking ‘is this as good as it’ll get?’ And ‘there’s always hope for more improvement’. However, when that improvement doesn’t materialise or I have a setback, any optimism can drain away. I do believe though, the body is amazing and given the right conditions it can heal further on some level. So back to the berberis. Here I was thinking nothing was happening, but the conditions must’ve been right. It was me just wanting it to grow quicker, when all it needed on my part was patience and time. That’s something I need to adopt when it comes to pain, fatigue and physical limitations. My recent setback taught me how precious my daily ‘lamp post challenge’ walks were no matter how small. My situation is what it is, but with patience, time and the right conditions there’s always the potential of some form of healing.

We are now well into spring and there’s an abundance of dandelions. Several years ago I used to pull them up like many people and then I discovered that they are highly beneficial to bees. I tried to move them, even plant their seeds in a certain area so the garden had some form of ‘order’. But again, nature knows best and over time the dandelions have thrived in the lawn, borders and rockery. It’s a joy to see the bees and other pollinators on them, as in each dandelion head there can be up to 200 individual flowers! And once gone to seed they’re enjoyed by goldfinches. How sad they seem to be the pinup flower for weed killers.

Dandelion laden verges are wildlife corridors and their seeds sit below long tufts of fluff. There’s something charming about these little suns that close and protect themselves in poor weather and at night. The name dandelion, comes from the French ‘dent de lion’ meaning, lion’s tooth, referring to the plants toothed leaves. They are the flowers of my childhood along with daisies and cowslips. I recall whoever picked a dandelion and got the sticky sap on their fingers, we would say they would wet the bed! In France they’re called ‘pissenlit’ – which translates as ‘wet the bed’. I used to call the dandelion seeds ‘fairies’ and grab them in the wind to make a wish and then release them. The seeds can float for miles on the breeze before parachuting down to germinate. In addition to foretelling bad weather by closing up to protect the pollen and nectar, it was said you could tell the time by blowing the seed head until none are left which would indicate the hour of the day. I recall doing this as a child.

Not only are we living in an ever changing world, nature is in constant change and trying to adapt to everything we throw at it. And it seems our small cherry tree isn’t happy with being ornamental anymore. It’s reverting back to its original flower. A gardening friend suggested ornamental cherry trees are grafted onto hardier stock and they can return back to the rootstock. After reading up on this, it looks as though we should have cut off the new suckers when they first appeared. But I’m pleased we didn’t, as bees now visit this cherry. They never did before as the blooms was tight and fussy. Whereas now the cherry’s flowers are open with easy access to pollen and nectar – happy days.

“Nature is a sonnet writer, scientist and therapist. A provider of poetry, mysteries and antidotes to despair – free at the point of use.”

– Jonathan Tulloch, nature writer.

I leave you with April’s glorious Pink Moon. I took photographs at various times of the day and night – the result was a contrast in colour and atmosphere. The Pink Moon is named after not the moon’s colour but a wildflower of North America, the creeping phlox.  Many beautiful moon names stem from indigenous Americans and their connection the natural world. I particularly like Frog Moon (from the native Cree people) and Moon When the Ducks Come Back (from the native Lakota people).

In folklore, it is said the time from the full moon until the last quarter is the best time for weeding, thinning and pruning. But as the No Mow May campaign is around the corner, we’ll be leaving many patches of wild flowers in our lawn for the bees. And of course allowing the dandelions to go to seed and drift where the wind takes them.

Enjoy nature and the night sky wherever you are and look out for May’s full moon, the Flower Moon on the 16th of May.


Glimpses of Eden by Jonathan Tulloch

Plants for Bees by W.D.J Kirk & F.N Howes

Garden Visitors – Colourful Symbols of Luck & Lore

On clement days we’ve had some wonderful invertebrates visit our garden.

I was over the moon to see my first Comma of the year just a couple of weeks ago. Their distinctive ragged edges, intense orange with dark markings cannot be mistaken for any other butterfly. It amazes me that this delicate insect has made it through hibernation. Maybe camouflaged amongst dead leaves or on a branch – a good reason not to be too tidy in the garden and to leave ‘rough areas’ such as a pile of leaves.

In folklore, butterflies symbolise life, souls, change, transformation and spiritual rebirth. It’s no wonder they are thought of in this way, as I still find the process of metamorphosis remarkable. In Irish folklore it is said butterflies carry the souls of the deceased to the other side. And the Aztecs believed that butterflies were the souls of women and children that died in childbirth. However, they’re not always associated with death and rebirth, as in Europe it was once thought seeing three white butterflies together would bring you good luck.

Grass green and bronze, the Hawthorn shieldbug is the UK’s largest shieldbug. As you would guess they feed upon hawthorn berries and leaves as well as birch and rowan. They can often go by the name of ‘stink bugs’ because they discharge a smelly liquid when threatened. I was delighted to see this one in the garden and it sat happily on my hand for some time.

The spring garden wouldn’t be complete without the presence of bees. And in recent weeks Hairy-footed flower bees have been busy amid the comfrey and pulmonaria. They have a bumblebee quality to them but are in fact solitary bees. It was difficult to get a photograph because of the quick darting flight. I’ve only seen the female in our garden, black furry and laden with pollen on her hind legs. The males however, after which the species are named due to their long feathery legs, are a gingery colour with pale moustaches. Hairy-footed flower bees nest in soft mortar such as cob walls, chimney stacks, clay soil or cliff faces. Look out for them zipping in and out of tubular flower patches.

In folklore, bees are associated with wisdom, hard work and are spiritual messengers. It is said they can be troubled easily though – so no arguing in front of them! In Celtic lore and mythology, bees were considered messengers from the gods, bringing good news. And in ancient Greece if a bee settled on the lips of a child it was thought they would become a grand orator or poet.

As well as the garden welcoming insect friends, we often find them in the home – our bathroom seems to be a popular place for a stopover. We’ve had spiders, moths, beetles and the other week this charming lacewing.

It’s not just spiders that produce silk. When a female lacewing lays her eggs, she produces a silk-like substance that hardens when it hits the air; she then deposits an egg on the end of the silk strand. An effective strategy, as passing predators, namely ants miss out on an appetising snack as they don’t see the lacewing’s eggs suspended at the end of the wispy threads.

Lacewing by name and nature – these delicate insects are a gardener’s friend as they’re carnivores and will feed on aphids. I discovered lacewing larvae can suck the aphids ‘juices’ and then hide beneath the sapped husks as a way of camouflage whilst hunting more aphids. And once more, being one step ahead of the ants.

I played around with the camera to see if I could highlight the lace quality of this delicate insect’s wings but I should have known better – nature cannot be improved upon. The pearly lace wings with emerald hues sparkled in the midday sun.

From One Gardener’s Friend To Another…

The ladybirds have emerged from their winter hibernation. I usually see two or three different species over the course of the summer, plus several variations of Harlequin ladybirds. But the ones I’ve seen so far have been the Seven-spot ladybirds.

There are 47 species of ladybirds in the UK and over 5,000 globally. They’re excellent predators of aphids and some feed on mildew – they’re very much a gardener’s friend. Brightly coloured to warn any would-be predators, these endearing beetles can discharge a distasteful substance and will play dead if need be. From these qualities comes the folklore – the ladybug as protector. It is said, if a ladybird appears it’s a signal to care for yourself and those around you. This little protector of plants also represents healing. And once they’ve landed upon you and then fly off, it was once thought they carry away illnesses. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, for this one below flew off my finger without any coaxing.

Across the world ladybirds (or ladybugs) are thought of as lucky and if you make a wish whilst a ladybird is on your hand it is said the direction she flies in is where your luck will come from.

It seems ladybirds are linked to affairs of the heart too. In Swedish folklore, it’s believed once a ladybird lands on a girl’s hand it’s a sign of marriage. And in Celtic and Scottish folklore, once the ladybird is released from the hand, the path she flies indicates where her future husband will come from.

“Ladybird, Ladybird flyway home,

Your house is on fire and your children are gone,

All except one, and her name is Anne,

And she hid underneath the baking pan.”

There are variations of the above dark nursery rhyme and it seems it has links to where the ladybird’s name originated.

During the Middle Ages, farmers were faced with crop pests and prayed to the Virgin Mary to help protect their produce. And sure enough, after the prayers the bright red and spotted beetles appeared. With a voracious appetite they ate up the aphids and other crop pests thereby saving the harvest. From this tale these colourful beetles became known as ‘Beetle of our Lady’. And from that the variations of ladybird or ladybug they are known as today.

I particularly like the Dutch name,: Lieveheerbeestje,  “the dear Lord’s little animal”. The Turkish name, Ugurbocegi – “good luck beetle” and the German name Marienkaefer, “Mary’s beetle”.

Back to the nursery rhyme though, after crops were harvested, the fields would be burnt ready for the next sewing cycle. It seems this song was sung before the field was set alight. The adult ladybirds could have flown away but their offspring: eggs, larvae and pupae would have burned.

I leave you with a rather fascinating French tale I discovered. Ladybirds were thought of as messengers from God and again, Mary. But during King Robert’s reign (c 972-1031), a man that had been sentenced to death had a ladybird land on his neck. The executioner shooed it away but the ladybird kept coming back to land on the prisoner’s neck. This was seen as a signal from the Virgin Mary and the execution was stopped for further examinations and enquiries. As the tale goes, the real criminal was found and the original prisoner was set free.


FSC Guide to ladybirds of the British Isles

FSC Guide to shieldbugs of the British Isles

Life In The Undergrowth by David Attenborough

Lore of the Wild by Claire Cock-Starkey and Aitch

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington

The Garden Jungle by Dave Goulson

The Secret Lives of Garden Bees by Jean Vernon,over%20winter%2C%20often%20in%20buildings.

Looking for Light

The world seems in a dark place right now, and as ever I look to the garden and nature for signs of hope and comfort.

Last week whilst admiring the spring flowers I discovered my first solitary bee of the year! A Gwynne’s mining bee.

She seemed to be resting on a daffodil and I thought perhaps she may need some warmth. So I rubbed my palms together and cupped my hand next to the flower. She crawled on and sat happily on my finger.

There’s something quite touching when you connect with a wild animal like this – even if it is the size of your little fingernail.

I admired her thick pile russet thorax and feathery pantaloons. This, along with her black facial hairs and time of year told me she could be a Gwynne’s Mining bee Andrena bicolor. Not confident with my solitary bee identification skills I sought confirmation from StevenFalk’s Flickr page and bee experts on Twitter.

The two bee nesters are back outside, ready for the coming season as in December we cleaned the cocoons. A total of 387! My husband and I did it over two days. Unwrapping the inner cardboard tubes, dusting off pollen, frass (larvae poo) and other debris. I then wiped each cocoon with damp cotton wool and below is the before and after.

However, I paid for it in the following weeks. My neck, shoulders and arms felt like they were on fire. run a Bee Guardian scheme, where for a price, they clean your bee cocoons and then send you some other cocoons back. Alternatively, you can place the tubes containing mason bee cocoons on a plate with an upturned plant pot and lay broken plant pots over the drainage hole to stop the rain getting in. I recall this method was suggested by wildlife gardener, Kate Bradbury. I can honestly say it’s an easier method of replacing the tubes but the cocoons don’t get cleaned this way.

If bee nesters aren’t cleaned out at least every other year to stop the spread of mites, parasites, and fungus they can become ‘bee mortuarties’ says George Pilkington from Nurturing Nature. His website has a wealth of information on bee nesters and caring for wild bees.

My red mason bees should be emerging in the coming weeks when the blossom is out. Mason bees are one of the best pollinators of fruit trees and it is said one red mason bee can pollinate the equivalent of 120-160 honeybees when it comes to apple blossom – that’s a hard-working bee!

Unfortunately, we have no room for fruit trees in our small suburban garden and just last week a nearby cherry blossom tree was cut down. It wasn’t in flower yet but I recall the abundance of pollinators in previous years. I was distraught.

On a more positive note, my lamp post challenge walks have allowed me to see some colourful and rather beautiful front gardens.

“A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.” – Zanshin

I’ve seen several buff-tailed bumblebee queens filling up with nectar and prospecting for a nesting site. Buff-tailed bumblebees are one of the first to emerge in spring and can even be seen on clement days in winter.

The house that gave us damsons and apples last year also have a flowering current bush. The slightly fusty, but not unpleasant subtle aroma filled the air before I was upon the shrub. They are a joy to see this time of year – like small floral grapes that dangle en masse. Candy floss pinks and small open flowers attract the bees.  

Back in the garden, a second mystery egg has appeared. Not hard boiled and part buried in the lawn like last month. No, this was an empty shell outside the back door. If drier weather is on its way we’ll be putting out the camera trap again and hopefully by Easter, we may find out who the mystery egg thief is? But my money is on the Fox.

Last Friday saw the final full moon of winter, earning the name, Lenten Moon. But another name linked to our natural world is, Worm Moon. One would think due to spring and more bird activity feeding upon the earthworms. But an alternative account suggests explorer, Captain Jonathan Carver in the 1760s visited several Native American tribes and noted ‘Worm Moon’ referred to a worm-like creature which was in fact beetle larvae. As this was the time of year for beetle larvae to surface from the bark of trees or wherever else they overwintered.

From what I understand, the golden hue is due to the moon first rising above the horizon when the light is reflected through Earth’s atmosphere.

Wherever you are, be it town or country, enjoy nature and look for light in the darkness.


Wildlife Gardening for everyone and everything by Kate Bradbury

Emerging From The Slumber of Winter

I love this time of year. Signs of spring are appearing in the garden after winter’s rest. Spring welcomes us with lighter mornings and afternoons, new shoots and buds.

It’s the time of year I look for ‘the firsts’ – the first flower, bee or other insect. I listen for the first birdsong and will continue to note seasonal changes until the first blackberries. Studying the timings of nature’s calendar alongside weather conditions is referred to as phenology and it’s been practised in the UK since the 1700s. To learn more, the Woodland Trust promotes Nature’s Calendar, to help us learn how our changing climate is affecting plants and wildlife. If you’d like to take part in citizen science you can add your sightings to their records.

Sunshine yellow with emerald collars, the Winter aconite Eranthis hyemalis (hyemalis, Latin for winter flowering) is one of the first emerging flowers in our garden. On milder days honeybees and buff-tailed bumblebees can feed upon the pollen and nectar. No sign of them yet, but after looking out at the green and brown of winter, the bright yellow flowers are a delight to see. Aconite grows well under trees before other plants come into bloom – perfect for woodlands.

Winter aconites are from the buttercup family and alternative names are: New Year’s gift and Roman soldiers. It was once said, aconites grew where Roman blood was shed. Not in our garden. I purchased some pots years ago from Walsingham Abbey, Nofolk. There’s great pleasure in acquiring plants from special places and I have such fond memories of my mum and I going on snowdrop walks at Walsingham, which brings me to…

The Snowdrops

Heralds of spring, snowdrops Galanthus nivalis symbolise new life, rebirth, hope and sympathy. The genus Galanthus, is taken from the Greek word ‘gala’ meaning milk and ‘anthos’ meaning flower and nivalis, is Latin for ‘of the snow’. Snowdrop enthusiasts and collectors are called galanthophiles.

I struggled to find out how many species of snowdrops there are so got in touch with Kew Gardens and I discovered there are 22 wild species and over 2,500 hybrid varieties.

Snowdrops are charming woodland flowers that grace many gardens. Ours appeared in January and are now in full bloom and they’ll flower into March. If you’re in the UK and close to Norfolk, I recommend the Walsingham Abbey snowdrop walk. Alternatively, have a look at the National Trust site for a list of UK places to see them.

Elsewhere in the garden

We’ve had a mystery egg appear. How did that get there? A Fox? I thought it was fungi at first as it was firm under my feet. But when I uncovered the leaves, there was a hardboiled egg – date stamped February! 

Thursday had a window of sunshine and I discovered my first hoverfly of the year – a drone fly. Likely to be the common drone fly Eristalis tenax as females overwinter and forage on early spring flowers.

In the Bible there is a story of honeybees rising from the dead body of a lion. There is a theory however, that the emerging ‘bees’ were in fact adult drone flies, flying up from a puddle the corpse was lying in. This biblical scene is featured on tins of a well-known golden syrup.

Drone flies are a gardener’s friend as their larvae are predators of plant feeding insects, such as aphids. Drone fly larvae are aquatic and known as rat-tailed maggots. The ‘rat tail’ is in fact a telescopic-like breathing tube that extends, enabling the larvae to breathe in water.

Whether it’s an abundance of snowdrops, the first insect or birdsong, enjoy nature wherever you are.


An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore by Stuart Phillips*MTY0NTExNTI0My4yLjAuMTY0NTExNTI0OS41NA..

Spending Winter Looking Up

I often find myself looking up. I gaze out of the windows at home, I look up to the sky when I’m out and I’m always looking upwards when travelling in a car or on a train. There is much to look at – the clouds themselves, the colour of the sky or passing birdlife. And in recent weeks I’ve discovered the best part of a winter’s day – just before sunset.

As dusk approaches I hear the laughter of gulls. They fly from a south easterly direction towards the west where there’s a water body. I wonder where they spend their days – a nearby rubbish tip perhaps? Whilst I haven’t looked closely at the coloration of their legs, these gulls are likely to be the Lesser black-backed gull and the Common gull. I find them such joyful birds but they are often referred to as noisy or the menace of coastal towns, wanting to steal your ice cream or chips and the media can add to the hysteria. But here, in land locked suburbia they are a welcome sight and sound. I’ve counted flocks of over thirty birds. And like geese they often fly in a V formation. This is not only due to safety in numbers but it helps them make headway as the bird at the front breaks the air. Thus, giving lift to the others. It is said birds that fly in this formation can fly seventy per cent further than birds flying alone.

Gulls have been coming into our towns for decades since they discovered our high-rise urban ‘cliffs’. And after the clean air act in the 1950s, when our waste moved to landfill sites, the gulls found a much-needed food source. Towns and cities can be a few degrees warmer too.

Out of the UK’s seven species of breeding gull five are now on the amber list and two are red-listed. This means they are of great conservation concern. When such opportunistic birds are in trouble we need to heed the warning – something is not well with our natural world.

The yellow legs tells me this is a Lesser black-backed gull, not the very similar Herring gull that has pink legs. It landed on a neighbour’s chimney last winter.  

Look up for the gulls wherever you are. And check out local playing fields too as they maybe ‘tap dancing’, trying to entice out the worms.

I often look out at this old oak. Above the rooftops I can see the top of its crown. Many birds gather here in the day: jackdaws, wood pigeons, blackbirds and starlings. And recently on several occasions in the early hours I’ve heard the recognisable ‘too-wit too-woo’ of the Tawny owl. This tells me, there’s a male and a female around. The female calls, ‘too-wit’ and the male replies, ‘too-woo’. I wonder which nearby trees they call from? It may be ‘my’ oak. For more information on Tawny owls and their duets, see the BTO site.

Most days I have the pleasure of seeing white doves circle above and often they land on the neighbour’s roof. I’m not sure if they are for racing or pets. But many of them belong to somebody as I can usually make out their leg band.

Elsewhere in the garden, on looking up at the roof of another neighbouring house I had the pleasure of seeing a pair of starlings with feathers in their beak. I had a closer look with my binoculars and discovered they were unable to gain access underneath a roof tile. This is where they’ve made their nest for the last two years. I recall seeing workmen late last summer and now realise they must’ve been blocking up the roof tiles. My heart sinks when this happens. Where will they go? It seems people are so eager to be tidy and have no tolerance for chattering birds for just a few weeks of the year. How very sad. The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and has been ranked at 228 out of 240 countries in the Biodiversity Intactness Index, (this monitors the change in ecological communities due to human pressures). The decline is thought to be due to a number of factors: fragmented and dwindling habitat and food resources, intensive farming, pesticides and climate change. 38 million birds have gone from the UK’s skies in the last fifty years.

What can we do?

I believe all is not lost. There are some amazing organisations that are helping to restore land for wildlife, such as the RSPB, and Wildlife Trusts, rewilding and farming projects that work with nature rather than against it such as the Knepp Estate, West Sussex and Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire. Within twenty years of wildlife-friendly farming at Hope Farm, breeding farmland birds have increased by 226%, the number of butterflies has increased by 300% and winter birds by 1000%! And for those of us that don’t own lots of land we can encourage birds and wildlife to our gardens, no matter how small.

  • Give birds a helping hand by putting up bird boxes or planting trees and hedges if space allows.
  • Put out birdfeeders and ensure they are cleaned regularly to keep them disease-free.
  • Put out a dish of clean water and have a small pond if space allows.
  • Plant pollinator friendly flowers and leave them to go to seed, so birds have a natural food resource too.

If you’re in the UK join in and take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch 28th-30th January. It’s a great citizen science project that helps monitor our bird populations. Over 1 million people took part last year and below are the 2021 top ten birds:

1 House Sparrow
2 Blue Tit
3 Starling
4 Blackbird
5 Woodpigeon
6 Robin
7 Great Tit
8 Goldfinch
9 Magpie
10 Long Tailed Tit

Elsewhere in the world

Birdlife International is a great partnership working with over a hundred wildlife conservation organisations globally covering six continents. From Argentina to Zimbabwe and beyond, there will be a wildlife organisation helping birds and the planet where you are, do check them out.

Where ever we are in the world birds unite us – their migration routes, the countries they choose to overwinter and breed in. And as I stay in one place at home I can look up and travel – to the Arctic tundra, over oceans and mountains and the deserts of Africa. Or perhaps just our local rubbish tip?  Enjoy the birdlife and nature wherever you are.

Image Pixabay The Other Kev


Collins Complete British Wildlife Photoguide, Paul Sterry

Nature’s Home The RSPB Magazine Spring 2020

Natures Home The RSPB Magazine Spring/Summer 2021

Missing The Sun & The Birds

The absence of birds in the garden these past few months has affected me. Up until last month I’d only seen my beloved Mr B once. The Robin and Great tit made a fleeting appearance, but no birds were making regular visits. Maybe seeds and berries had been plentiful elsewhere?  All I know is, I’ve been longing for spring and the garden birds.

Sometimes I think I’m susceptible to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). The theory of SAD is the shortage of sunlight which affects part of the brain (the hypothalamus) working as it should. This can result in production of more melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Reduction in sunlight can also mean a drop in serotonin, which can result in decreased appetite, lower moods and affects sleep. It can also affect our circadian rhythm (internal body clock). The Latin translation, ‘circa diem’ means, ‘around the day’.  This sleep – wake cycle can be off-kilter in the winter months and on reading more about it, I discovered the sun is the external signal our body needs to fully function and keep us alert during the day.

As ever, I look for the connections to nature and discovered many flowers need circadian rhythms as guidance when to open and close. Nocturnal animals have a different circadian rhythm limiting their exposure in the daytime, so they can venture out at night to avoid predators.

So it seems I yearn for sun and warmth, both physically and mentally. Aches and pains seem less so during the summer and drier weather, or is it that more serotonin is produced in the summer that helps me deal with it?

If you want to find out more about Seasonal Affective Disorder, Mind, the mental health charity has lots of information. Not just on SAD but mental health in general and how you can get support.

The natural world really does have the ability to lift the spirits though. And with a little patience and time, when the snow came so did plenty of birds.  I was overjoyed to see Mr B!

Long-tailed tits, I find are happy little birds, bobbing about twittering in social groups. They form flocks during winter and visit woodlands, parks and gardens to feed on insects and spiders. They weigh less than half a robin’s weight and have a recognisable undulating flight. Their long distinctive tail is what gives this bird its name and due to their small size they huddle together to keep warm overnight.

The Silver birch’s yellowing leaves against winter’s blue sky was the perfect camouflage for a foraging Blue tit. Can you see it?

Starlings I find are underrated birds. Look closely in the right light and their plumage is magnificent. Pale speckled chests with iridescent colouring. Greens and purples shimmer in sunlight. They are social flock birds and always make me smile, especially when they do their comedy walk.

It’s during autumn and winter when starlings take to the air en masse that gives us a spectacular show. As dusk approaches murmuration numbers can reach 100,000! The above photo was taken last October at Rough Tor, Cornwall – a perfect place to watch this mesmerising spectacle.

Whilst not the best photo, you can still make out the distinctive shape of the nuthatch.

Slate grey above and buffy chestnut below, this bird may be fairly small but it has a powerful beak. Nuthatches remind me of mini woodpeckers with heavily applied eye make up! I recall in Brigit Strawbridge Howard’s book, Dancing with Bees, her mother refers to the nuthatch as the ‘upside down bird’. This bird has a tendency to face downwards when feeding, not upright like other birds. Brigit writes very movingly, that putting up bird feeders in the grounds of her mother’s nursing home was the most successful thing in lifting her mother’s spirits. And this little visitor lifted mine.

It seems the birds hadn’t gone far. As they’re now making regular visits my heart is a little lighter. The shortest day is December 21st and no matter the weather, from then on I know the nights will become lighter and spring won’t be far away. Warmer days will come and the birds will return singing. In the meantime I share with you a beautiful quote I heard on an excellent television programme – The Wild Gardener

 “If you can’t stand the winter, you don’t deserve the spring” – Colin Stafford-Johnson (Wildlife cameraman)

… I now remind myself of this when I yearn for spring. Not only does it apply to nature and the seasons but in life too. Because after the bleakness of winter, when positive or happy occasions arise, no matter how small, life is all the more richer and sweeter for it.

Have a peaceful Christmas and New Year.


Dancing with Bees by Brigit Strawbridge Howard

Churchyards & The Wonder Of Yew

We are now past Samhain (Halloween) and heading into winter when all of nature is slowing down. So with National Tree Week at the end of the month, (27th November – 5th December) and Christmas not far away, what better place to visit than a churchyard.

Churchyards and burial grounds are ideal for nature watching, especially if you suffer with limited mobility. It’s a small area to walk around and there are often benches to sit and rest. It’s not only me that has quiet contemplation in churchyards but the wildlife often seems at peace too – largely left alone from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

These pockets of nature reserves are dotted throughout the country and refuge for many mammals such as bats and foxes, birds like the goldcrest, owls and swallows. But on entering a churchyard it’s always the magical and mystical yew tree I’m in awe of.

Yews belong to the gymnosperm group of trees which evolved 390 million years ago and include conifers such as pine, spruce and cedar. They are wind pollinated and their seeds aren’t contained within an ovary or fruit like the angiosperms (flowering plants).  Yews take many shapes and can grow in a variety of soils. They are typically male or female (dioecious) although there have been cases when they’ve changed sex. The red berries, called arils indicate it’s female. I was interested to discover that Irish yews (Taxus baccata fastigiata ) are female and can be traced back to a tree from the late 1700s in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. Irish yews are more upright with bushier foliage and adorn many churchyards too.

A Grand Old Age

As I meandered in the churchyard amongst the ageing headstones, I admired the yew’s thick scaly bark with reddish hues and pondered its age.

Yews can reach a grand old age – a hundred years can pass before yew trees reach sexual maturity and they can then live beyond 1,000 years. They’re not considered ancient until 900 years old.  Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, describes the yew as “the epitome of frugality and patience.”

Many yew trees date back to the time of the Druids and there are some ancient monumental yews in British churchyards. One such tree is in St Bartholomew’s churchyard, Much Marcle, Herefordshire. It’s thought to be over 1,500 years old and over 30 feet in circumference. The Ankerwycke yew, Berkshire is said to be between 1,400 – 2,500 years old and the site where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. But the oldest in the UK is said to be the Fortingall Yew, Perthshire, Scotland. There is a story the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate was born under this tree and there are estimations of the tree’s age anywhere between 3,000 – 9,000 years old. The vast estimation is due to the difficulty in dating trees when the heartwood has rotted away. The yew has the ability to grow new trunks from rooting branches and this is one reason for the yews long life.

“We live in decades, yews measure eons. A visit to an old churchyard might be the nearest we get to time travelling” – Jonathan Tulloch, nature writer.

The Darker Side of Yew – Poison & Death

Yews have been associated with death, a symbol of immortality and an omen of doom. It was once believed yew trees purified the dead and were planted at the graves of plague victims. But in the 1600s it was believed the dead released noxious gases, which the yew absorbed making it poisonous. Years ago it was also said they were planted in churchyards to deter farmers from allowing their animals to roam and graze within the burial grounds.

No part of the yew should be ingested as it’s highly toxic, but birds are able to eat the fleshy part of the berry. Interestingly, the yew is now harvested and used in some anti-cancer drugs. Isn’t the natural world fascinating? How a plant can be highly toxic yet we use it in modern medicine.

Past Uses

Yew timber is tough and the wood was once used for tool handles and longbows. I discovered during the reign of King Edward IV (1461-83) and King Richard III (1483-5) it was the desired wood for longbows, which gave more success in battle due to its faster reloading compared to the crossbow. Later the wood was used for furniture such as Windsor chairs.

Legend & Lore

Whenever I read up on natural history, I take pleasure in reading about myths and folklore. The tales connect me our ancestors from years ago and below is a love story and fairy folklore relating to the yew.

The King of Cornwall, Mark sent his nephew, Tristan to Ireland to bring back the King of Ireland’s daughter, Iseult. But the Princess didn’t love her husband to be, so her mother made a love potion secretly putting it in wine for the couple to have on their wedding night. However, on the journey to Cornwall Iseult and Tristan drank the potion instead and fell madly in love. They snatched time together over the years, eventually parted ways and Tristan also married but they always remained in love with each other. Years later when Iseult and Tristan died, the King, torn between the love of his wife and nephew gave them a formal funeral. After they were buried, a yew tree grew from each grave. The King demanded they were cut down, but they soon grew again. With the king’s orders they were cut down again and again after that. Then King Mark, having love for his wife and nephew permitted the trees to grow. The yew trees grew taller and their branches outstretched towards one another – entwined and never to be separated.

When trees first appeared on earth, it is said the yew tree thought that other trees were finer, clad in their broader and glossier leaves. The faeries heard of the yew’s dissatisfaction and turned the yew’s needle-like leaves to gold. The yew was happy to have such showy leaves but when thieves stole them at night the yew was sad again. The faeries then gave the yew crystal leaves until a storm came along and the crystal leaves were smashed. The faeries then gave it broad leaves, like most of the other trees and the yew was happy again. Until some animals came by and ate the leaves. After this, the yew decided that the best leaves were its initial green needle-like leaves.

From pre-Christian times, sealing the Magna Carta or planting to cleanse plague victims the yew has seen many changes. But as it stands majestically in churchyards today with other conifers and broadleaved trees, it is the yew that has the most history. I hope the yews in our churchyards and burial grounds live out their lives feeding and sheltering wildlife for many centuries to come.


An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore by Stuart Phillips

Dancing With Bees by Brigit Strawbridge

Glimpses of Eden by Jonathan Tulloch

Guide to Wildlife of Burial Grounds, Field Studies Council

Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham

Wood Identification and Use by Terry Porter

October – The Month of All Seasons

So far, October has seen wind, rain, sun and rainbows. It can be a colourful time year with the changes in the leaves and remnants of late summer and this year has been no exception.

Blue skies and wispy clouds on sunny days allows me to think back to the summer when I would sit in the warmth of the sun. I long for them again, but what a waste, to wish away several months and countdown to next spring and summer! Besides, winter can have its beauty.

On the pleasant still days when it’s been dry there’s been many pollinators about: Common carder bumblebees, wasps, hoverflies and ladybirds. Ivy is a fantastic source of nectar in the autumn and the exposed nectaries allows short tongued wasps to enjoy its bounty.

The beautiful and distinctive Common carder bumblebee is one of the latest flying bumblebees. Its long tongue enables it to enjoy the rewards from more tubular shaped flowers such as white dead nettle, but this time of year it’s been happily foraging on the cosmos.

Stars and Stripes

The neighbour’s Rowan tree (also referred to as Mountain ash) is looking stunning with the scarlet berries – a feast for the birds too. The Rowan tree is associated with witches and magic and was once planted near houses as protection against witches. Interestingly, its Celtic name is Fid na ndruad, which means ‘Wizards Tree’.

Rowan trees are sacred in Celtic culture and symbolise motherhood, birth and protection. Note the tiny, five pointed star (pentagram) at the base of each berry. The five pointed star symbol was often used as a mark of protection.

Lovely to see this pretty hoverfly, likely to be Syrphus ribesii, which can be seen on milder days into November.

There are over 6,000 species of hoverflies globally and around 280 in the UK. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica. The adults are great pollinators (second to bees) and their larvae are excellent predators of aphids.

From a dainty hoverfly to something quite spectacular! My photo doesn’t do it justice, but on looking out of the kitchen window I thought I saw a hornet landing on the shed. But no – a Hornet hoverfly Volucella zonaria. The Hornet hoverfly is our largest hoverfly in the UK and a hornet mimic. I’m sure it fools many, but as with all hoverflies it’s totally harmless. The young larvae feed off the detritus in social wasps nests (including hornets) – a perfect relationship.

The stripes and bright colours of many harmless insects deter any would-be predators, signalling they are distasteful.  The similar markings and colorations in some species to look like a more harmful species is known as Batesian mimicry, named after the naturalist, Henry Walter Bates.

From Batesian mimicry to protection in other ways…

After fourteen years I’ve discovered a hedgehog in the garden! Not the best photograph I know, but after seeing droppings, we decided to put out the camera trap.

To protect itself from would-be predators hedgehogs curl themselves up into a spiky ball. These spines are made up of the same substance as our hair and nails – keratin. And an adult hedgehog can have between 5,000 and 7,000 spines!

Hedgehog droppings consist of one or two pellets, smaller in size than the little finger. If shiny, it may indicate beetles have been eaten. Hedgehogs will eat; worms, earwigs, weevils, caterpillars and carrion such as dead frogs. They’ll soon be getting ready for hibernation and will lose a third of their body weight in the process. Hedgehogs make three nests – one in summer, one nursery nest and one for hibernation. They are now at a vulnerable status in the UK and sadly in recent years the only ones I’ve seen have been road traffic casualties. So to know they are visiting our garden fills me with joy.

How to Help Hedgehogs

  • Keep rubbish bags off the ground, to prevent hedgehogs getting inside and becoming trapped.
  • Keep drains covered.
  • Leave a 5×5 inch hole in the fence/border between yours and your neighbour’s garden, so they can forage through a wide range of gardens.
  • Please don’t use pesticides, rodenticides and refrain from using slug pellets too (if you have, remove dead slugs daily).
  • Don’t be too eager to clear all the leaves in autumn. Leave a ‘wild area’ and if you are ‘tidying up’ and need to get rid of a pile of leaves and plan to have a fire, please move it to a different spot first.
  1. Move the materials to clear ground on the day they are to be lit, then
  2. Check the pile carefully just before striking that match, and finally
  3. Offer an escape route by only lighting from one side.

If you’re lucky enough to have this charming prickly visitor overwinter or visit your garden, please visit and for more information and ways to help.

I leave you with the stunning autumn colours of the Staghorn Sumac shrub. The colour of the leaves start with a mouthwatering peach and become more fiery as the month goes on. Its fuzzy red fruit is inviting to touch and the name comes from the velvety ‘antler’ of the plant.

Wherever you are in the world, enjoy the beauty of nature and the changing of the seasons.


Britain’s Hoverflies an introduction to the hoverflies of Britain by Stuart Ball and Roger Morris

Wasp by Richard Jones

September – A Change In The Air

The garden is slowing down. There is still colour around but the light and sounds have changed and my beloved Mr B is laying low. His sublime song is long gone and after a busy summer of four broods (one unsuccessful courtesy of the squirrel), Mr and Mrs B now deserve a rest. But like many adult birds they are moulting.

Mr B’s sleek black feathers are now shedding; they’re to be replaced with new feathers to help him through the winter. Flying, the sun, parasites and general wear and tear can weaken and damage feathers. This can lead to heat loss and without crucial flight feathers more energy is needed to fly. Like our hair, the new growth pushes out the old feathers from the follicles in the skin. Birds need to pool their resources into new feather growth, hence them keeping a low profile in late summer.

September – The Month For Berries

The pollinators have done well this summer and the elderflowers have turned to berries. Favoured by birds and mammals, the berries can now be enjoyed by an array of wildlife that visits the garden.

Mythology and Folklore

The elder is said to protect against troublesome faeries and witches, but it could also be a witch in disguise! It was believed the elder tree protects the home when planted close to a house or at the door of stables to help protect livestock. And in Ireland, it’s thought if the tree self seeds it’s more powerful. Good news for our home and garden!

Elder is a tree of dryads (young female spirits that live in trees). The spirits can be called if a flute made from elder wood is played. But the wood should definitely not be used to make furniture or to furnish a home as it will warp and break and if ever used for floorboards, it is said invisible hands would pull at the arms and legs of the inhabitants! In an even creepier Scandinavian folktale, I discovered the story of an elder tree growing in a farmyard that went walking at dusk to peer through windows at children! 

My favourite folktales regarding the elder are its medicinal purposes. It was said the juice from the inner bark could be spotted onto the eyelids and then one would be able to see witches. Lastly, it was believed warts could be eradicated thanks to the elder. Legend has it, in a village in Buckinghamshire, England in the nineteenth century a young girl had many warts. A neighbour counted them and cut the same number of notches on an elder stick, buried it and as the twig rotted away, the warts vanished!

The Learning Curve of Pacing

There’s no manual that comes with chronic illness, the whole experience is one rocky journey. Not only a spiritual one, whereby I’m learning more about myself and the world around me but a constant physical one too.

On my ‘lamp post challenge’ walks I’ve noticed berries and fruits upon the trees. In one particular garden there were four damson trees. I didn’t want to see them go to waste, so I got it into my head to make some jam. The owner kindly said we could help ourselves. But who would have thought jam making should come with a health warning? After the heavy work my husband did, picking and carrying several pounds of damsons, all I had to do was boil up some fruit and sugar. Simple right? My body had other ideas – carrying a couple of pound of sugar and standing for over two hours boiling and sieving out stones was more than I should have done. I’d done way too much. I had searing pain in my back, tailbone and legs. The pain and fatigue lasted days and I’ve still not fully recovered from it. All because I didn’t listen to my body and I’m still learning to pace.

The bowl of damsons looked delicious and their powdery skins reminded me of the 17th Century Dutch still life paintings I used to admire in galleries.

Guess who knows about pacing though? Yep, Mother Nature. Days later I sat in the garden and noticed the change in the leaves – the sound was drier. Trees know to slow down, birds too and the squirrels are now beginning to cache. I take heed from Mother Nature and leave you with last month’s Sturgeon sky.

So listen to your body, instinct or inner voice and if like me you struggle to, then listen to Mother Nature.


An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore by Stuart Phillips