Sunday, 23 August 2015

Watching nature from my garden

I have spent a lot of time watching nature this year, mainly from my patio. It's surprising what you can see from your own garden.
For a start, we see a lot of buzzards. These magnificent, big birds have only been around for the past 10 years, recolonising the countryside after years when numbers declined due to gamekeepers and pesticides.
They are now very common and I can see them most days. They spend their time zig-zagging across the terrain looking for carrion or easy prey. Earlier in the year, I witnessed the rookery's early-warning and interceptor system spring into action when a ranging buzzard came too close. The rooks nesting in the large horse chestnuts on the old A47 saw the buzzard getting closer and closer to their roosts. I don't think it had baby rook on the menu, but they weren't taking any chances and dispatched an interceptor to harry the buzzard and drive it away.
Last week I watched a replay, but with a difference. I was in the garden and heard the distinct "mew" of a buzzard. It was over the bypass, quite low (less than 100 feet) quartering the ground and heading south towards the rookery. I expected a robust response, but there wasn't a flicker, the buzzard flew right across their trees and not so much of a caw from the rookery. Obviously, all the young have fledged some time back and were probably out in the fields feeding, so the rooks couldn't care less about Mr Buzzard.
As well as buzzards, we get a few red kites. These are very common a little to the west, in Rutland, and also on the rubbish dump at Eye, where they scavenge alongside the gulls, but they don't venture as far east as Thorney very often. They are easy to tell apart as the kite has a distinctive forked tail.
Watching buzzards carefully, I have seen this manoeuvre repeated several times and I guess it's a means of moving across country very quickly. The bird will catch a thermal and soar higher and higher until it's almost lost from sight. It will then take a bearing and begin a long, shallow dive, arrow straight and increasing in speed until the bird is really flying very fast; so fast that it quickly disappears from view. It's a very efficient way of getting from A to B as it expends little energy, using rising air like a glider and then taking a fast route to the next thermal (exactly what a glider does, in fact, although the buzzard certainly thought of it first).
Summer is chugging along, the wheat in the field next to our house was harvested last week and the straw was chopped by the combine-harvester and left lying on the ground to be ploughed in later. Wheat straw is much shorter than it was 30 years ago. When we came to the fens, we'd see fields of corn flattened by heavy rain and this rarely happens now, the wheat (and barley) stands neatly with the field crossed by tramlines where narrow-wheeled tractors have sprayed the crop. I can remember crop-spraying from aircraft and one year, a helicopter was used to spray the fields right next to our house. I much prefer the new method.
Longer wheat straw on older varieties meant more straw to dispose of. Farmers would leave this in lines where the combine had harvested and then burn it. Four three or four weeks in August the air would be full of smoke and it was really quite unpleasant, even if we did get some magnificent sunsets. Straw-burning was outlawed on environmental grounds and so our late summer air is now much cleaner.
Anyway, the harvested wheat field seemed to be attracting some insects and that, in turn, attracted a large flock of house martins, which are busy fattening themselves up for their journey south. They spent a good 20 minutes swooping and twisting over the field and it's amazing to watch. The small birds are so skillful, using their stubby, forked tails and short powerful wings to execute amazing turns.
As I was watching them, there was a loud, rumbling roar above. This was two RAF Tornado fighters practising dog-fights high overhead. This is a very common noise and not always welcome on an otherwise peaceful, sunny day but this was a clear morning and I could see the two planes very easily against the blue sky. They were executing some amazing tight turns and making an enormous din as the afterburners kicked in on full-throttle climbs. The Tornado is one of the most manoeuvrable planes in the sky thanks to its computer-aided, fly-by-wire technology, but for low-altitude work (and fly-catching) nothing beats a house martin.
I have made a determined effort in the past couple of years to create an environment that is good for insects. They have repaid me by caterpillars eating all my solomon's seal and mizuna, but there has been a definite increase in insect life and frogs/toads.
One of the things I've done is plant many more flowers which are good for pollinators and it's been interesting to see what "customers" the different flowers have attracted. honey bees love blackberry flowers, also cosmos and sedum; butterflies get really excited by buddleia; hoverflies have enjoyed the verbena bonariensis and bumble bees have fallen asleep on the heady nectar of the teasels. The flowers that have been most interesting to watch have been the globe artichokes at the allotment. Bees hurl themselves at the flowers and burrow down into the mass of soft petals to get at the nectar. They almost disappear from view and emerge covered in pollen, like an unpopular politician hit by a flour bomb.


Bees collecting nectar from the Globe Artichoke flowers. They hurl
themselves into the bed of petals and swim down to the nectar.
When I built the summerhouse, I made it as hedgehog-friendly as I could. Max and I even constructed a hollow chamber within the concrete base where a hedgehog could hibernate. I've seen the odd hedgehog in the garden since then, but they've hardly been beating a path to my door. A couple of weeks ago, Bert and Irene's granddaughter, who volunteers for a hedgehog rescue group, brought two hedgehogs for release back into the wild.
We lodged the open box to allow them to "escape" under the decking and I've not seen them since, although I am putting down water and some hedgehog food. There was a male and a female and the male was a large chap. I'd like to see hedgehogs in the garden, but they will choose where they want to live, not much I can do about it.

Footnote: I'm pleased to say that on August 25, I let Holly out before coming to bed and there was a hedgehog on the patio, probably one of the two released a couple of weeks previously, although I can't be sure.