Monthly Archives: March 2014

Make Your House A Home…

…For wildlife. Okay, well maybe the garden anyway. During National Nest Box Week way back in February I decided to make a nest box for my own garden. It may now be too late to catch this year’s breeders – unless we get any birds which have been displaced from their original nests – but the box will still provide a useful roost for birds during the winter and will be in situ by the time next spring comes around.

Here are some pictures…before…

Untreated White Pine Plank

During…

Nest Box Components

After…

Completed Nest Box

The nest box has been in place since the weekend, about two and a half metres above ground in our Holly tree. Hopefully it will generate at least some interest amongst the local avian population, even if it isn’t for breeding this year!

And here are some pictures of some other garden residents, one of whom is beginning to stir.

Seven Spot Ladybird (Coccinella Septempunctata)

Seven Spot Ladybird (Coccinella Septempunctata) already up and about.

Seven Spot Ladybird (Coccinella Septempunctata)

Seven Spot Ladybird still in hibernation. These are probably the best know of our UK ladybirds and are prodigious predators of aphids, both in the larval and adult stages. Apparently the resident UK population is supplemented by migrants during the summer -wow!

 

St Mary’s and Hartley

Despite the tide being in I couldn’t resist a trip to St Mary’s last Sunday morning (9th March) – the kids were at their grandparents’, the sun was shining and there was a long list of DIY jobs outstanding at home! When I arrived, the tide was high but hadn’t yet covered all of the rocks at the northern end of Whitley Bay, round to St Mary’s Island and there were plenty of waders to be seen in amongst the pools and seaweed. Most prevalent were Turnstone along with Purple Sandpiper and Dunlin. These were interspersed with the odd Redshank and further round the bend, a small group of Sanderling and a lone Rock Pipit.

A quick look across to St Mary’s Island showed a much larger group of birds waiting patiently for the tide to recede before feeding time! These included large numbers of Oystercatcher and Sanderling, plenty of Herring and Black Headed Gulls and numerous male and female Common Eiders bobbing on the sea just in front of the island. It is amazing to think that these pretty sea ducks were perhaps the first animals subject to conservation: St Cuthbert is said to have watched over and protected the Eiders around the Farne Islands way back in the seventh century.

I now moved up on to the headland and the path that leads towards Hartley and Seaton Sluice. Almost immediately I was struck by the delightful sound of Skylark in full song, which they have been here since early February. Looking into the fields there were numerous birds, rising up into the air and then flitting down onto the ground and I realised that the volume was at least in part explained by the sheer number of birds – there are loads here, so the habitat must be well suited to them. I continued a little way along the path before stopping at the cliff edge to scan the sea. I was rewarded by the sight of a pair of Divers, though they were too far out for me to identify easily at that point with just the binoculars. Then I noticed a large dark-coloured object out on the water. At first I thought it was a duck but when I got the binoculars on it, it turned out to be a lone Grey Seal, its head just poking out of the waves! I watched it for quite a while as every so often it would disappear completely under the water, before resurfacing a few minutes later in more or less the same place. What an awesome sight and a first for me on this part of the coast.

Whilst I watched the Seal, the Divers had come close enough to view properly and I realised there were four rather than two – these were Red Throated Divers, still in winter plumage but handsome nonetheless. A little further along the track were Curlews in the fields opposite, probing the grass with their long curved beaks and a few Starlings doing the same with their smaller beaks. I was hopeful I might spot some more Stonechat but some exploration of the grassy cliff edge drew a blank. However it was great to have a fly by of a super looking Fulmar at very close range. Looking along the cliff I could see a few pairs of Black Headed Gulls, Jackdaws and Rock Doves seated on their respective ledges, high above the water and I wonder if they are sitting on eggs already?

Eventually I was almost at Seaton Sluice and decided to turn round and head back. Soon after I fixed on a female Stonechat, not as close at hand as last time I was here but attractive all the same. Overhead there were plenty of finches moving up and down the coastline – mainly Goldfinch and Linnet but also Greenfinch. By this time the sun’s warmth had encouraged me to undo both jackets I was wearing and it felt positively spring like. On the walk back I noticed a couple of bees buzzing through the air, undoubtedly encouraged out of hibernation by the temperature which was over twelve degrees. A pair of Reed Bunting in the fields opposite the wetland area at St Mary’s capped a great morning’s bird watching.

As usual I was struck by the sheer variety of species and great mix of habitats here on the north east coast. There is so much out there for us to see; all we need to do is look! I can’t wait to see what else spring will bring to this part of the world.

Butterflies

Today I saw my first butterflies of the year – Small Tortoiseshell – in the landscaped gardens of my office. In all I caught sight of five individual butterflies. At first there were three together, two of which spiralled upwards together in the warm, bright air. Unless I am mistaken, this behaviour is combative rather than romantic but it was still a fantastic sight and calls to mind summer days to come.

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies are amongst the first to be seen in the year and it is not atypical for them to emerge in March but this is the north east of England (!) and definitely the first year I have seen butterflies so early. It got me wondering what will happen to them, especially if there is a cold snap – mornings here of late have seen hard frost before the temperature rises during the day.

A little internet research (thanks Sir Tim, 25 years to the day since the World Wide Web was invented) tells me that if the weather were to turn colder again, it could force the butterflies back into hibernation, assuming they can find a suitably dry, sheltered place. Wet and cold weather means less time available for butterflies to find food, less food in general and only limited opportunities to mate, meaning some may die through lack of energy, whilst overall populations can suffer later in the year and the following spring.

Luckily the weather looks good for the next few days or so, which is good news for any butterflies already on the wing. And I will be keeping my fingers crossed the weather stays that way and we get another warm, dry summer to boot, so that we can continue to enjoy these wonderful insects in all our green spaces.

Rising Sun

Last Sunday (2nd March) I took an early morning trip to the Rising Sun Country Park which is situated right at the heart of North Tyneside. The park is owned and managed by the local council and despite being situated behind a supermarket, offers a wide variety of wildlife habitats across a fairly small area, including plantation woodland, grassland, wetland and a lake.  As with a lot of the great habitats for wildlife across the north east, the Rising Sun was created on an old mining site and the lake and wetland area is now designated as a Local Nature Reserve.

Image

The weather last weekend was distinctly wintry compared to the weekend just gone but the morning was bright and clear. I headed straight down toward the Swallow Pond (as the lake is known) to have a look at the bird life through the hide at the bottom end of the water. The lake is quieter now than it was in the depths of winter but there were still plenty of Mallard, Teal and Tufted Duck on the water, along with Mute Swans and Canada Geese and the usual complement of Herring and Black Headed Gulls. Around the margins of the lake there were Coot and Moorhen foraging in amongst the reeds. And within just a matter of minutes I was thrilled to discover a pair of Water Rail right beside the hide, giving great views. Back in December I had caught sight of the rear end of a Water Rail disappearing into the reeds and was really disappointed, having realised it had been right under my nose all along. So this sighting of the elusive species more than compensated!

After the Swallow Pond I made my way along the track with Blue Tit, Great Tit, Greenfinch and Chaffinch in the hedge rows either side. There were plenty of Robins and Blackbirds foraging amongst the leaves alongside the path ahead of me and I also heard and saw Goldfinch over head. I once read the song of Goldfinch described as being like the sound of ‘tinkling bells’ and if you listen hard enough I think you will agree – it is a lovely sound.

Towards the top of the Park (the eastern edge) is another smaller body of water – Duke’s Pond – surrounded by reeds and tussocky grass and I made my way there next. In the pond were just a few Mallard and Tufted Duck, along with Coot and Moorhen but a bird in the nearby hedgerow caught my eye. On closer inspection it turned out to be a Corn Bunting, a farmland bird that is scarce these days, so in the space of half an hour I was thrilled twice! I walked round the pond and spotted a Lapwing in display flight just outside the Park boundary. Its fast swooping, diving and barrel-rolling was breathtaking. I was also treated to the melodious sound of a Song Thrush in full song and eventually located the bird perched in a hedgerow, again on the fringe of the Park boundary.

After a while I retraced my steps and resumed my circular walk, but not before disturbing a Wren which had been minding its business in the long grass. Towards the visitor centre at least two Mistle Thrush foraged on the edge of the car park before flying into the trees and on to a telegraph wire. Whilst following the Thrush which flew up to the wire I spotted two handsome Stock Doves which were also perched further along the wire, enjoying the morning sunshine. These were the first I have seen in a long time, although they can be easily overlooked in a large flock of Wood Pigeon.

Rising Sun Plantation Woodland

Past the visitor centre I descended down into the plantation woodland; a mixture of Lodgepole Pine, Silver Birch, Whitebeam and Poplar. On the way down I spied a bird being mobbed by a Crow above the trees, some way off. Instinctively I thought ‘bird of prey’ and indeed it was – my first Sparrowhawk of the year. Both the Crow and the Sparrowhawk were soon out of view so I headed into the woods. The high-pitched calls of Coal Tits and Goldcrests could soon be heard and it wasn’t long before I had located these small birds, flitting from branch to branch in the Pine trees. As the Coal Tits and Goldcrests departed, I caught sight of two new birds – a pair of Treecreepers. One soon disappeared but the other remained on a Silver Birch, climbing the tree from its base whilst scouring the bark for tiny insects. This bird looked really smart, with its white breast and underparts in nice contrast to its streaked brown head, body and wings.

Rising Sun Plantation Woodland

Once the Treecreeper was out of sight I lingered a while longer before making off for home but I will certainly be visiting again over the rest of the year. One area of the Park that will come into its own over the coming months is the wild flower meadow which has been created in an area of the plantation woodland cleared by fire. This area boast orchids amongst other species and attracts butterflies and other insects during summer. The woodland areas also play host to an interesting variety of fungi and mosses which thrive in the damp conditions, particularly in autumn, which will be great to investigate.

Willow Catkin

Nesting Instinct Part 2

As I mentioned in my blog last week, I was planning on creating some possible nesting habitat for Wrens in my back garden. I managed to get at least part way done at the weekend so I can now share a picture.

Compost Pile

I need to add a little height to the pile with some grass cuttings and then some more sticks and branches for structure and protection from the elements.

There was no reason for me choosing to help Wrens really, other than the fact that they are known to build nests in unexpected places such as loosely built compost heaps (like mine!). In spring in some parts of the UK the male Wren will build a number of different nests and the female will choose one of them, often settling on the most cryptic nest site – possibly as these sites are less likely to be predated. Further north the male Wrens build fewer nests but tend to be more attentive partners, so we will see whether my slightly off-the-wall compost heap cum nest site will be any good for them.

One of next door’s cats has already been studying the pile so it’s obviously good for something…possibly wood mice, although maybe some birds have been prospecting the area too, you never know.

Signs of spring are definitely becoming more noticeable here in the north east, so I’ll need to get my nest box built quick smart if I want it to be used this year. The Skylarks have been singing in the fields close to the coast for over two weeks now and it’s been great to hear many other species of bird in full territorial song. Blackbird, Song Thrush, Great Tit and Chaffinch have all been vocal during the last week or two. I have also spotted quite a few Black Headed Gulls sporting their summer hoods and have been watching Wood Pigeon and Magpie constructing nests ready for use since the end of January.

Spring highlight of the year so far though has got to be the frogs I found spawning in the small pond at the Northumberland Wildlife Trust (“NWT”) nature reserve round the corner from work. Not really on my patch but a wonderful sight and sound nonetheless.