Friendly Gardening

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I had an email this morning from Buglife, reminding me that I should be planning my garden for the coming spring and summer with due regard for our bees and other insects.

As my readers will surely know by now, I love insects and other invertebrates, and in particular I love hoverflies. I even have a soft spot for spiders, which my Other Half regards as a bit of a double edged sword, because though I will remove spiders from his vicinity and relocate them outdoors, I am also tolerant of their presence and seldom actually do so unless he asks me. Don’t tell him, but there’s an interesting little guy living in a pot in our conservatory, and I’m waiting at least until I can photograph and identify him before I want to even consider removing him. Besides, he eats the weevils that we managed to import with some bird food and which now appear to have colonised the conservatory1.

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Rice Weevil, Sitophilus oryzae

So I took a look at the Buglife page about wild-life gardening and took a screenshot to post on the Sparking Synapse Facebook page with a link to their site. It has some useful tips, and it’s well worth considering. A manicured garden is all very lovely – and fair enough, many people just want the pretty flowers and the smooth lawn – but it does little for wildlife, and since most farmers these days are also doing very little for wildlife2, those of us with gardens really need to think about taking up the slack.

What’s in it for you? Well, I’m willing to bet that you don’t much care for aphids, am I right? Inviting hoverflies into your garden will take care of that for you, because there are dozens of the little darlings whose larvae eat quite prodigious amounts of the blighters. My roses had a grand total of no aphids at all last year, not after the hoverflies found them. Providing a safe place for hedgehogs to hibernate, and water for them to drink, will help to rid your garden of snails and slugs. Allowing Leopard slugs to live peacefully on your property will also help to control these pests, because Leopard slugs will not destroy your plants, but do clean up decaying matter, and also eat other slugs.

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Hoverfly larva eating an aphid

So, how do you start? Well, if you grow vegetables, consider allowing a few of each to flower; many (eg carrots, fennel, and brassicas) are very attractive to insects, and if you have space for it, a single plant of angelica will feed huge numbers of bees and hoverflies. Perhaps you have ivy in your garden? It might be a pain when it gets out of control, but if you let it climb up a fence and retain some older strands when you clip it (twine them in or peg them back), the pollinators will love you for it in the autumn when little else is in flower. Also, a dense, intertwined layer of evergreen foliage like this is invaluable as a place to hibernate for insects like ladybirds – which also have larvae that are very keen on aphids for lunch – not to mention breakfast, dinner and supper. Wasps will also feed on ivy, but before you say anything, remember that wasps are valuable pollinators, too, and actually kill large numbers of insect pests, carrying them back to their nests to feed their young.

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An Eristalis sp hoverfly feeding on ivy

A source of water is useful for many creatures. Keep it clean for birds, but if you have an out-of-the-way corner, you can create a hoverfly lagoon with a small container of stagnant water full of decaying grass and leaves3.

You’d be surprised at what resources some beneficial insects need. There are hoverflies which love to feed on grass pollen and others which lay their eggs in rot holes in trees. There are bees which nest in bare earth and others which like to use old bird boxes. Some of our rare beetles need decaying wood lying around on the ground. And there are many tiny creatures which over-winter in drifts or piles of dead leaves – so it won’t surprise you to learn that having filled my garden incinerator with leaves and other combustible debris, I can’t bring myself to set light to it in case there are spiders, beetles, bees and so on living inside it.

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A small caterpillar found in leaf litter in January

There is also a hoverfly which lays its eggs in active wasps nests, but I’m not suggesting you keep one of those handy in your garden shed with the door left considerately open. All you need to remember is that a wild patch in your garden, dandelions left unmolested in your lawn and a little dead wood and garden litter left here and there, will help some of our most neglected wildlife survive and complete their life-cycles. If you can also dedicate some of your space to pollen-rich flowers, so much the better because many of the showier hybrid versions of old-fashioned flowers have virtually no nectar to give. Choose original versions or proven pollinator-friendly flowers and shrubs if you can, single flowers rather than double, etc. Chocolate-coloured primroses, PomPom dahlias or big, showy Spanish bluebells may look wonderful to you, but won’t be much visited by insects.

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A small solitary bee feeding on dandelion, Lassioglossum sp

1 I won’t use poisons if I can possibly help it. As far as I’m concerned, they are an unnecessary danger to other, more welcome, life-forms including my grandchildren and my dogs.

2 Wildflowers are disappearing from our countryside at an alarming rate as farmers feel the need to plough right up to the edges of their fields to maximise their crop yields. Not all farmers. Some are enlightened and considerate, and even if they do use pesticides (which are incredibly destructive to invertebrates – after all, that is their job) will leave an area wild to make up for it. Kudos to those people!

3 The Buzz Club’s Hoverfly Lagoon Project gives details on how to make one of these and if you are also willing to record the activity, that would be great! But they can smell a bit so you’ll need a site somewhere away from the house.

Hoverflies

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I’ve always been interested in tiny creatures.  Well, perhaps ‘interested’ isn’t the right word.  Perhaps I should say ‘fascinated’.  I blame my father1.

For most of my life, it’s all been a bit random, so I’d see something with more legs than I have and quite a lot smaller than me, and I’d want to get a closer look and watch it for a while.  Thanks to Dad, I grew up knowing roughly what most of the common ones were and I could name them by their common family names at least: that’s a woodlouse, this is a centipede, there’s a beetle, etc.  As I grew older, I found that I knew a little bit more than most people.  I found myself saying things like ‘that’s not a beetle, it’s a bug’, or ‘no, it’s not a centipede, it’s a millipede’ and getting mildly annoyed when people didn’t care and still got it wrong.  And as time went on, the little creatures I could identify accurately increased, so that instead of saying ‘I found a beetle!’ I could say ‘here’s a Cockchafer’, or whatever.  I was fairly indiscriminate, but during the last few years my fascination has focussed sharply on hoverflies.

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Hoverflies are fascinating little creatures.  You know those little stripey flying things that hover silently over flowers in the summer?  A lot of people think they’re bees or wasps because they’re stripey, but they’re not, they are flies. They have no sting and they don’t bite.  And – here’s the important bit – they are not all stripey.  There are nearly three hundred different species of hoverfly in the UK, and they range from tiny black things to large furry bumblebee mimics that can sometimes even fool entomologists for a moment or two2.  There are wasp and hornet mimics, as well.

Everyone knows that bees are important to us because they are pollinators3, but not everyone knows that hoverflies are, too.  They visit flowers, they pick up pollen, they visit other flowers and drop some.   And there are a lot of them.   You might be used to seeing them only in high summer, but that’s because you’re not looking for them.  This cool, windy, wet spring has meant that there are fewer hoverflies here than usual, but I’m still seeing them on all but the worst days.  By the time Joe Public notices them, they are out in their thousands – and Mr Public will notice only a handful of species4.

So after a year or so of teaching myself to photograph them – which is surprisingly difficult, since like all flies they have excellent, wide-ranging, motion-detecting eyes, and can move like greased lightning if they feel threatened – I decided to join the Facebook group UK Hoverflies and began to submit records for my area.  It’s run by entomologists who are experts in hoverflies and they are all lovely people who are endlessly patient with amateurs like me who just want to know.  And so my interest was encouraged, and grew, and when I saw that a hoverfly identification workshop was being held in Shrewsbury in May I signed up for it5.

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It was great!  I learned so much more about hoverflies, and picked up some skills which will help me to identify them more effectively.  Of course, to do it properlyI’d need to kill them, and look at them under a binocular microscope with a camera and screen6, which would set me back several thousand pounds, but at least I now know which features to look at and the best camera angles to try for and will be better able to identify the easier ones7.

I’m not into killing them.  I can see why it’s necessary for it to be done by bona fide entomologists who are making what they call a ‘voucher collection’ and by bona fide entomological students who are seeking to become the next generation of experts, but it’s not for me.  So there will always be some hoverflies I cannot identify properly8, and that’s OK.

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We should all be concerned about helping pollinator numbers stay strong.  Not everyone will be willing to go as far as me and have silage lagoons in the garden for hoverfly breeding, but we can all plant the right sort of flowers, can’t we?  And – more importantly – stop using all those damned chemicals.

 

1 My father was an well-known entomologist, who studied beetles and took us kids on field trips.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think it a subject fit for girls so although he told me the names of things when I asked, he didn’t encourage my interest.

2 Without pollinators, a lot of our food crops would not be possible.

3 If they catch them out of the corner of their eye while they are feeding on a flower in company with bees.  Me, I’m not an expert, but I have to tell you that when I saw my first Volucella zonaria I honestly thought it was a hornet until I got the photos home and onto the computer screen where I saw that it was a hoverfly.

4 The stripey ones.

5 Rather rashly, as it happens.  I hate driving long distances, and while I’m aware that a journey of two and a half hours is peanuts to some people, to me it is a Long Trip and I nearly chickened out.  And because various things happened on the day I was due to leave, it was a nightmare journey which took nearly twice as long.  But I got there!  I was also terrified that looking down microscopes all day would give me a migraine (which incapacitates me and would have meant getting someone to take me back to my hotel, which would have been a tad difficult, since the type of migraine I get means I’d have trouble remembering the name of the hotel, let alone my room number), but thankfully that didn’t happen.

6 The camera and screen would avoid all neck strain and allow me to get on with the job without risking a migraine.  I coveted it, but for an amateur like me, it’s an unjustifiable expense, which would be equivalent to a couple of weeks in Italy at a really nice hotel.  I do have a hand-held digital microscope to which I could add lighting, a stand, screen, etc to at a relatively low cost (we’re talking hundreds rather than thousands), but as it is, it gives me a migraine.

7 Some need to be dead.  You need to be able to move heads and wings and legs to see the hidden bits and sometimes you need to dissect them.  I could get interested in that, but I don’t want to kill them, so I’d have to simply find them lying around with their legs in the air.

8 Yes. Quite often the stripey ones.

On disappointment and optimism

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Spring, it appears, is springing rather early this year. I’ve had daffodils and bowls of hyacinths in the house for a couple of weeks, and violets from the garden joined them a week ago1. But I’m a tad disappointed because people on the insect groups have been reporting bee sightings for a couple of weeks, too, and I have seen not one.

True, there was a bee-fly last week, which nearly flew into me (daft thing was not properly awake, I fear) but I couldn’t photograph it to ID it properly because a) I had no camera with me and b) I had a grand-twin by the hand and we were about to cross a road.   So that was a tiny bit disappointing, though it was lovely to see.

However, a couple of days ago, OH and I decided to take Sid to a local nature reserve called Cuckoo’s Hollow, which is small, quite ‘managed’2 and has paved paths for mobility challenged dogs, people in wheelchairs, cyclists, and spouses who do not wish to get their feet muddy.

This was a Bad Decision, because Cuckoo’s Hollow is in the process of being … um … managed.

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Not exactly a beauty spot, is it?

There is a project underway to dredge silt from the lake, which has apparently become more and more silted up over the years, with reeds encroaching into the open water.  It has to be done because the nature reserve is part of the plan to reduce flood risk for the housing area which surrounds it, and I can’t argue with that.  However, they are also digging some of the reed beds out by the roots and they are removing tons of silt which they are dumping here, on the bank.

Now, the reed beds are home to swans, moorhens, coots and ducks and possibly the endangered and protected water vole3.   And I am concerned about the fact that they are removing the reeds from their favourite side of the lake, and they are doing it now, when the birds are beginning to court and think about raising their families.  It was supposed to be done ‘during the month of February’ to avoid disturbing nesting birds, but the work doesn’t look to be half-way finished to me, and as I said, spring is coming early.

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But do you know what the daftest thing is?  This reserve is basically a lake, fed by a brook, with a lot of plain old ordinary grass and some belts of trees.  There was one relatively small area bordering the lake where a good mix of wildflowers grew: geraniums (blue) and cranesbills (pink), big ox-eye daisies, hawkweeds, foamy white cow’s parsley and other umbellifers, ground ivy, speedwell, thistles and knapweeds, etc.  Bees, butterflies, hoverflies and beetles loved them, and so did I.  And yes, I said ‘grew’, because that sea of mud up there is exactly where they used to be.

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They will have seeded, of course, and some will have very stubborn roots, capable of regeneration, but …

This area is also where they plan to dump the silt they’ve dredged out of the lake to leave it to dry, when it will be harrowed and planted with grass.  The silt – I am reliably informed – will be too rich in nutrients for many wildflowers and it could be that grass is the only thing which will grow there.  And not only that, the silt is where many hoverfly, dragonfly and damselfly larvae are overwintering, ready to emerge4 in the mid-to-late spring and early summer.

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The above pictures of insects in this blog were taken on this little wildflower patch last year.  I doubt there’ll be any new ones this coming summer.  The first is of Oedemera nobilis, a flower beetle.  The second, Bombus vestalis and an Apis mellifera (honeybee) foraging for nectar in  the thistles. The third is Osmia caerulescens, a solitary bee, approaching a white clover flower.

This all sounds more disappointing than optimistic, doesn’t it? But nature can surprise us with unexpected regenerative powers, so I’m hopeful that all is not lost.  Maybe not this year, but perhaps the year after we will see some beautiful wildflowers and insect activity at Cuckoo’s Hollow?  And I found my first hoverfly of the year today!  I present to you, Eristalis tenax, feeding on dandelion.

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1 I planted a TON of spring bulbs last autumn.  I have a lot of crocuses, snowdrops and little daffodils!  Yay me!  However, the 150 snakeshead fritillaries which I planted have not deigned to show their pretty little heads so far, and of the 50 or so hyacinths I put in, only those I planted in pots have surfaced.  I think the mice eat them.

2 ‘Managed’ means that the grass is mown, the trees are coppiced and things like dredging the lake are done.  I know, reserves have to be managed.  Some are more managed than others.

3  They did not wait for the survey to be done before they began work on the grounds that there are wooden supports for the bank under water and they ‘did not think the voles would be able to nest there’.  Seeing as the biggest population of water voles in the UK is at the moment living happily on a deprived housing estate in Glasgow, two miles from the nearest water and under decomposing mattresses, I’d respectfully suggest that they are more adaptable than our local environment chappies think!

4 Or not, as the case may be.

So many things …

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You know how it is. There are so many things to do, so many places to go, and so many blog posts you mean to write. The last is particularly true, and I’ve made a lot of notes, and then .. the ‘so many things to do’ and the ‘so many places to go’ went and got in the way.

I really want to start blogging properly again, but it seems I don’t have much time to craft the sort of posts I used to do, so for now, I’m going to be putting up brief snippets of this and that, starting with something I usually get into at this time of year; macro photography of wildlife.

The little creature up at the top is a tiny bee, less than a centimetre in length, which at first I thought was a wasp on account of its tiny waist. It’s called Hylaeus communis, which I’d never have known if it weren’t for the freely offered expertise of a Swedish guy called Göran Holmström, who belongs to the same ‘bee and wasp’ group as I do. Facebook can be a wonderful thing, when used wisely.

This next picture is one of our commonest hoverflies, and one of the most frequently photographed. I adore hoverflies, but these little guys annoy the hell out of me because when I’m trying to get a picture, they hover motionless about half a metre in front of me, poking their tongues out and taunting me, then when I slowly raise the camera to their level, they dart out of sight – only to return seconds later in a slightly different spot!

Episyrphus balteatus (also known as the Marmalade Fly) meet your public.

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While I was out photographing bees and hoverflies a week or so ago, I noticed this day-flying moth on a daisy. It’s called ‘Mother Shipton’ because it has a little witch’s face on each wing.

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Now, you all love ladybirds, right? Can’t get enough of them, I bet. Even people who hate ‘bugs’ and ‘creepy-crawlies’ like ladybirds – I mean, they’re not really beetles are they?1

How about this then?

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That’s the larva of a Seven-Spot Ladybird, in the process of pupating. Only its mother could love it. Well, it’s mother and me, and lots of other insect fans, actually.

Okay, let’s finish with something cute. Here is a Mullein moth caterpillar eating my buddleia. Considering the number of them, and the size of them, it’s amazing there isn’t more damage, but in fact I can hardly see where they’ve been!

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You don’t think that’s cute? Oh, well. Can’t please you all .. but try this.

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That’s the Seven Spot Ladybird that the weird-looking larva you saw up there will one day turn into. Well, one like it, anyway!

If you’re interested in insects, no matter if you know very little, try joining one of the Facebook groups. The people there are lovely and willingly identify things for anyone who asks. I am a member of UK Hoverflies, Insects of Britain and Northern Europe, and UK Bees, Wasps and Ants.

1 Actually, yes. Yes, they are. They are absolutely 100% beetles.

Winter – Photo Challenge

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Seems to me that I might as well join a photo challenge, while I’m trying to learn my way around my new camera, so here goes with ‘Winter’ from A Lil Hoohaa

It’s a little bit late, since this was the theme for February, but hey – the photos were taken in February, so doesn’t that count?

Now, we haven’t really had much in the way of frost or snow, and very little mist or fog, and since one can’t actually capture the feeling of very cold air in a picture, you’ll have to use your imagination a little bit1. Up there at the top, though, is rather wintry simply because of the mist combined with the blue sky and the ponies being fed hay because the grass is so thin on the ground. These ponies are being grazed on a rather limited area anyway; just a thin strip on the top of one of the many drainage dykes.

Next, I suppose, the low lighting generally should get a look-in, since that’s also a feature of this season, with or without visible manifestations of the chill factor2. Here’s a view I often get of OH and Jeffie as Sid and I pause to allow them to catch up. You see Sid, being a tripod, finds it easier to bound along at a fast-ish pace. Certainly it’s more than a fast walking pace for me, and I don’t do more than a very slow jog at the best of times. It’s not particularly comfortable for me, but it’s impossible for OH and Jeffie to keep up, so … there you go. Outlined by the low light of winter:

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This winter having been so mild, we’ve seen quite a few flowers blooming relatively early, but of course, the snowdrop is famous for putting in a ‘dawn-of-the-year’ appearance, and ours were true to form and have been out for a couple of weeks now. I have doubles and singles, but I much prefer the single flowered ones.

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Another dog walk, this time at the boating lake, which is a very popular dog-walking, child-walking, and general recreation area. The lake itself is frozen over, but with lots of cracks and un-frozen parts around the edges. The wildfowl seem to be managing OK, but it’s definitely not suitable for boating – or skating, come to that!

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Lastly, the sunset. This is fairly wintry, since it’s either in the late autumn or winter that we get such spectacular colours here in England. The sun was sinking so fast, as I stood taking photos, that I only had time for four before it was gone. I think it was worth getting out of the car for, though, don’t you?

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1 Yes, yes, I know. England doesn’t exactly reach hideously low temperatures compared to .. oh, I don’t know, Saskatchewan … but it feels bloody cold to us, OK?

2 Like snow, ice, hail, sleet, that kind of thing.

Jeffie’s Neurologist

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We popped down to the Queen’s Veterinary Hospital at Cambridge University yesterday to see Jeffie’s neurologist, Paul Freeman. We didn’t take Jeffie along because we were only going to view the scans and x-rays which had been taken when he was seen there, but which for some reason we didn’t get to see at the time.

It felt strange walking into reception without a dog, and knowing we weren’t even there to collect one. I almost felt like a fraud. So I buried myself in my Which Digital Camera? magazine, because another thing we were going to do was visit the Campkins photography shop to see if we could get me a new camera.

And the time went by. I read all the latest reviews and discovered that since I last bought a one, something called a Compact System Camera had appeared in large numbers, and that I wanted one.

We were given some tokens by the receptionist for a hot drink from the machine, and passed a minute or two selecting and following instructions after which we drank the strangest cappuccino either of us have ever tasted1.

More time passed. Canon and Nikon were metaphorically ditched, and I learned that Sony cameras were well respected and that Olympus were not only still being made but were strong contenders. I also learned that something mysterious called the Micro Four Thirds systems was raising the game.

And eventually, OH said: ‘Do you know we’ve been here nearly an hour?’

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I went up to the desk and relayed this information to the receptionist in a polite ‘how much longer?’ kind of way and she checked our appointment time and who we were here to see, and looked horrified that we hadn’t been seen yet and rang through to find out what was going on, and a few minutes later the neurologist came through apologetically and ushered us into a consulting room. It seems he was just about to ring us to find out if we were coming or not, because his pager had fallen off somewhere and he’d never got the message that we had arrived.

Ah well. There then followed a most interesting session with him showing us the x-rays and MRI scans and explaining what all the things we could see thereupon actually meant.

My eye was immediately drawn to a bulging disc, but in fact it was an old problem, quite calcified and unlikely to be causing his symptoms because a) he doesn’t appear to be in pain judging by the way he throws himself about and leaps into the car like Zebedee, and b) it isn’t compressing anything. This was in the cauda equina2 area, but most of the bulging is in the safest position, which is downwards, and the nerves are not being pinched. We discussed his demeanour, his playfulness, and lack of any obvious signs of pain, plus the fact that he is in fact on anti-inflammatories as a kind of empirical ‘he’s nearly thirteen years old, he must hurt somewhere‘ solution. Personally, I haven’t seen any sign of any difference in him since he’s been on them, but I’m willing to trust my vet on that one.

There are also a few bone spurs, most noticeable in the thoracic region, but again, not of a type to cause a problem, and not in a place where they might cause a problem. ‘It’s something you see in old dogs’ he said. Fair enough.

I wish I’d thought to ask if I could snap a couple of pictures off the screen to show you, but the sad fact is that I didn’t, so you’ll have to make do with some random pictures.

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Anyway. It was lovely of Mr Freeman to give us an appointment just to go and see the scans and to make time to explain everything thoroughly for us. I have to say that our experiences so far with the Cambridge vet school have been outstanding, and this afternoon gave us a new appreciation for exactly why the cost of an MRI is so high. Not only do the machines themselves cost an absolute fortune3, and animals need to be anaesthetised while inside them, but because the area they cover at any one time is so small, it can take a long time to get the information you need. You have to first determine which area is worth looking at by clinical examination, then take some x-rays to narrow it down, then set up your MRI to make ‘slices’ at predetermined intervals through the tissues. Each slice examines a two-dimensional area, so that, for instance, to examine a short section of spine properly4, you might need about fifteen slices – which all take time, both to produce and to analyse.

For Jeffie, today’s visit will make absolutely no difference at all. For us, it was reassuring to know that we had done, and were doing, all that was reasonable. He is an old dog – thirteen years old in a few months – and there is a limit to what one should do, I think, if the benefit does not outweight the risks and stresses involved. What we hope for Jeffie is that he will continue to enjoy life in his own idiosyncratic way, despite his ‘Dogzheimer’s Syndrome’ and his wobble issues, right up to the day we find that he has peacefully slipped away from us in his sleep. It’s a rare thing, but when it happens to an oldie whose issues are known and are being addressed, it’s a real blessing.

1 It must have been cappuccino because it said so on the pod. Tell me: why do coffee machine manufacturers assume that anyone who wants cappuccino or hot chocolate also wants to compromise their pancreas and rot their teeth? What is wrong with being allowed to add sugar by choice?

2 Cauda Equina literally means ‘horse’s tail’ and refers to a section of spinal cord with nerve roots branching out all over the place.

3 Pet Plan insurance is our friend.

4 In the ‘through the tube’ direction, not with the animal flat on his side.

No birds on the feeders

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Well, OK. I exaggerate a tad It’s not ‘no birds ever’, it’s ‘very few birds’.

It’s winter here in jolly old England, and my least favourite month of the season: February. January can be vicious, it’s true1, but February seems to hang onto the worst of winter with bitter obstinacy, and March with it’s blue skies2 seems months away. Usually.

This year, it’s been quite mild. There have been some days when it’s been warm enough to go out without a jacket, and I’ve been too hot in my walking boots.

We live on the edge of the village, so on one side of us there are open fields, and on the other the houses continue, and grow denser. Usually we get a fair variety of bird visitors in winter, including magpies, jackdaws, fieldfares, goldfinches, blue tits, great tits, starlings, dunnocks and the occasional green woodpecker. Not forgetting the robin (singular) and last year we had Bob the blackbird, who would hop into the conservatory to clean up any dropped bits of kibble from Jeffie’s dish. He got quite impatient if breakfast was late, or if Jeffie didn’t drop any, but Jeffie usually did drop quite a lot so that was alright. OH got quite used to going into the conservatory with his cup of tea only to see Bob’s truculent little face pressed against the glass door. If he’d had fingers, we’re convinced he’d have been tapping them, while muttering things like ‘Bloody lazy humans .. Come on, come on! Do you think I’ve got all day?’

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This year, the birds have been conspicuous by their absence. We have two bird feeding poles, each with a hanging seed feeder and a mesh tray. I put ‘no mess’ bird food into one feeder and a ‘winter warmer’ mix into the other, and mealworms and a corn mix into the trays for the starlings, jackdaws and the aggressive little bastard robin3. I sprinkle mealworms occasionally into the dormant vegetable trugs for Bob, because blackbirds are ground feeders by choice. I also sprinkle a small amount of seed mix on the ground for the dunnocks, but I don’t know why I bother because the starlings tip enough onto the ground anyway once they get here.

But that’s the problem. This year, the bird numbers are way, way down. I have had, at the most, five starlings on a feeding station at one time, whereas usually, there are somewhere around fifteen or twenty.

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The dunnocks are still hopping around in ones and twos, but the collared doves, wood pigeons, tits and so on are, quite simply, infrequent visitors. I’ve seen a jackdaw once, and I haven’t seen a goldfinch or a woodpecker4 this winter at all. Even Bob is conspicuous by his absence. Good heavens, I’ve only had to buy one pack of each type of food for them! I’m filling the seed feeders once a week, instead of every couple of days.

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I don’t think it’s a lack of bird numbers. I think it’s the unseasonal weather. I think that the birds are finding plenty to eat in the fields and hedgerows without having to venture into gardens – which is why the mealworms are going, I suppose, mealworms being to the winter bird diet as a restaurant meal is to us; something rich and special, to be grabbed if you can.

There’s a ‘Winter Invertebrates’ thread on a wildlife forum I belong to, and it’s really quite busy with sightings of flies, slugs, beetles etc all awake and doing when they should be asleep, and there are flowers blooming which shouldn’t be5. No wonder the birds aren’t at the all-you-can-eat buffet we call the feeders! What with all this untoward activity, plus the habit farmers have of planting crops earlier and earlier, they have the equivalent of a roast dinner out there for the taking!

Ah well. I bet come nesting season they’ll be back. For a brief month or so the feeders will be emptying as if they had holes in the bottom.

Oh .. wait … they do!

1 … and so can March, April, May, September, October, November and December. In fact, you can throw in June, July and August as well, because I can remember some vicious days during those months too, like the day we battled to the get to the school’s summer fete in driving snow one July dressed in our winter’s finest and with our umbrellas turning inside out, and the August day I tried to cycle into Brighton from the north against a full-on, bitterly cold gale. In fact, just go and listen to Flanders & Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather‘, and you’ll get the idea.

2 See footnote one.

3 People seem to have such an affection for the robin that they tend to overlook the hugely aggressive nature of this little bird. They berate starlings for being dirty, noisy, antisocial and aggressive, but in fact starlings are a) no dirtier than robins, although considerably less dainty, b) extremely social with a very organised ‘family’ structure, and c) only aggressive with each other. I have never seen one chase a bird of another species away or attack them in any way, but OK, you’ve got me on the ‘noisy’. Robins, on the other hand, will kill their own mate if she doesn’t bugger off the minute raising the family is done with, and likewise the nestlings if they hang around once their red breast feathers develop. They will attack small birds of other species without provocation, and will even attempt to kill a stuffed model robin, or their own reflection in a window.

4 Though I know the woodpeckers are around because I hear them.

5 Like the white rambling rose at the bottom of the garden, and the periwinkles, for goodness’ sake!

The Digital Age

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When I was very young, my father had a camera. It was a fixed-lens model, and when you opened it a bellows popped out, which moved in and out to focus the lens, but it folded up small so it nearly always came with us on outings and holidays. That’s it on the left in the picture. Dad would carefully sort the resulting photos, and stick the best into post-bound albums1 that he’d made himself, and he’d paint little designs on the pages. Sometimes there’d be a caption and date and sometimes not, but those albums – which I still have – are a record of our family from the beginning of WW1 to some time in the sixties. I don’t know why he stopped, but it was shortly after we moved out of London and he took a management position at a local printing press, so maybe he was simply too busy.

I so wanted a camera of my own, and when I was about sixteen years old I bought one with the miniscule wages2 from my first job. It was a Kodak Instamatic. I took pictures of our cats and our house and the family, and places I’d been and where I worked … and at some point I won a ‘young people’s’ photo competition, which did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

Feb5-Instamatic

When I met OH, I got my hands on a half-decent camera – a Praktica SLR. We met on a residential course, and something clicked between us. He lent me this camera, which had a removable lens and looked horribly complicated, but he showed me how to use it and I got some surprisingly good results. When we went home at the end of the week, he took the rolls of film I’d used and developed and printed them for me, sending them to me in a fat envelope. Looking back, he must have been besotted, because he wasn’t very well-off either, though certainly more solvent than I.

Feb5-CarlbPraktica

I’ve been through several cameras since then. After we were married, OH bought a Contax 127 Quartz, which I used more than he did. In no particular order3, we’ve since had, between us, a Contax Aria, a Bronica ETRS, and an ETRSi, a Minolta twin lens reflex, a Canon Powershot, and about four Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoots. Apart from the current point & shoots, we now have a Canon DSLR, and a Lumix bridge camera. And I’m looking to upgrade.

Every time I go on holiday I take a camera, and sometimes two. I love taking photographs – I suppose you could say that it’s one of my hobbies. I take photos of my family, of family events, of things I’ve made, and places I’ve been. I can’t wait for spring, because the insects will suddenly be everywhere and I’ll have a thousand new subjects to try to capture in all their miniature and startling detail.

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My trouble is that I very seldom do anything with the photographs I take, apart from when I use them on my blog. I have thousands upon thousands of photographs sitting quietly on hard disks and CDs and in my own personal storage galleries online, but that’s about it. Oh, I have made a few note-cards and so on. I’ve printed off the odd tee-shirt and had the odd mug made. I might even have a photobook made of some of the nicest, but that’s quite daunting (I did one once with over a hundred pages for a gift, and I nearly turned grey overnight4). Anyhow, very few of them end up in albums like this one:

Feb5-2015-2AlbumWeb

But now I’ve disovered Picfair, which seems to be quite interesting. It’s an online image market to which anyone can contribute. I keep the copyright on all my photos, and I can upload what I like, when I like, and I can delete them if I like. The fun part is that I can set a price, which can be a nominal £1 if I so choose, or I can be ambitious and ask £50. I can change that price when I like, too. Picfair make their money by charging the buyer of the license a small percentage. And I’m finding that this is addictive. I’m going through my digital albums and finding pictures I’d forgotten about, and putting them out there to see if they can help me justify the cost of a new camera5. The next step will be to scan in some of my film photos, though some I might need to get them reprinted first. They fade, in time, you know.

If you would like to see some of my favourite images, go take a look. Click here to be taken to my home page on Picfair. I’d welcome your opinion. Tell me which your favourites are, and why!

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And if you feel generous, do click on any that you particularly like and view the full sized version, because that will help my ratings and maybe one day I’ll sell – or rather licence – one or two.

It’s amazing, but that picture of a hoverfly on my finger was taken one-handed with a Lumix bridge camera. Perhaps Dad, being a keen entomologist, would have kept up the photography if he’d had a modern camera with a macro feature that could do that, but sadly, they simply didn’t exist in those days.

1 Post bound means that the covers are simply two separate covered boards, and both they and the pages are punched. You buy special bolts, otherwise known as Chicago screws, or post screws, and when you want to add or remove pages, you simply unscrew them and take off the cover/s.

2 Six pounds and sixpence, if you must know! I could barely afford my bus fare into work and suitable clothing. I was officially ‘poor’ and could get free glasses and dental treatment and everything. So the Instamatic – a very cheap camera – was bought on the ‘never-never’ – that’s hire purchase for those non-Brits who don’t know the term.

3 Because I’ve forgotten.

4 Well, I would have done, if I weren’t grey already. And in fact I should have said ‘over several weeks’ because that’s how long it took me to try to upload my photos in the correct order, and in the correct size, with the correct backgrounds and captions where required.

5 So far, the answer is no, but I live in hope.