Sunday 23 June 2013

A Wildflower Meadow - and War and Peace on the Water

Meadow Flowers at Rough Piece, including Common Spotted Orchid, Bird's Foot Trefoil and Buttercups

I love seeing traditional wildflower meadows, although there aren't many around here.  But I've been determined to see one this summer - and so I made a special trip to visit a meadow called Rough Piece near Basildon. Now Basildon - still known as a new town - has not and never will be a beautiful place (to say the least), but it was developed in the middle of some lovely countryside and some of this still exists on the fringes of the town.  Rough Piece has been preserved as a wildflower meadow and has also been selected as one of the 'new' Coronation Meadows (these were launched by the Prince of Wales earlier this month).

Here are some pics from the meadow;
Common Spotted Orchid

Ragged Robin

I'm not sure about the middle flower. I wonder if it's one of the Marsh Orchids (unlike the Early Purple Orchid the leaves are unspotted).

War and Peace on the Water

1. War: The Sad Story of Fighting Swans

I'd been watching a pair of Swans nesting and was looking forward to seeing the Cygnets hatch out...

The nesting pair had been so attentive to each other and the nest; the male (cob) would often come up to check on the female (pen)...

And so when I saw a family of Swans - cob, pen and Cygnets - swimming on the water I was delighted, thinking that the Cygnets had hatched at last.  But I soon realised that this was actually a different family altogether - and that they were intruding too close to the nesting site of the other pair...

Within minutes of my noticing this new family, the 'home' cob came thundering in, furious that there were strangers so close to his nest. And so the inevitable happened, a vicious battle followed, with lots of loud wing-flapping between the two cobs.

The battle began in the open...

The Two Male Swans (Cobs) begin their fight

But the 'home' cob never really had a chance to dominate, perhaps he was the younger of the two...

The intruding cob had the advantage throughout, even when the nesting pen came over to protest.

The two pairs of Swans are now fighting with each other. The Cygnets look on.

All four Swans and the Cygnets disappeared deep into the reeds, where I could hear them thrashing about but couldn't see them. Then, after a battle that lasted a good half hour, the intruders emerged triumphant, with no sign of the 'home' cob at all, while his mate returned to her nest to lie low.

But the intruding cob hadn't finished. He now had his sights on the 'home' pen and bore down on her as she sat on the nest. He successfully drove her off and they both disappeared into the reeds.  And then he emerged after a few minutes - without any sign of the pen - and returned to his family.

I don't know final the outcome of this. It could be very bad news. I've not seen the 'home' pen
 on her nest since, although a single Swan can be seen gliding alone in a small pool near by.  This could be a different Swan altogether, of course. On the other hand, perhaps the home Swans have just given up on this nesting site - and flown off to start again somewhere else. 

2. Peace - Nesting Birds and New Life

Here are some of the peaceful sights by water.

Reed Warbler

Bearded Tit

Male Bearded Tit

Female Reed Bunting (the male was there too, also with a beak full of food)

Female Reed Bunting

Grebe family: I've loved seeing the very young birds catching a lift on a parent's back.
Great Crested Grebe and young hitching a ride

But it isn't long before they're too big, although the Grebes are still very attentive parents...

And finally thanks so much for letting me know about bee-flowers after my last post. This information will help with my planting for June (and so help prevent any 'June Gap' problems for the bees).

Thursday 13 June 2013

Early Summer Garden Flowers for Bees; Swarms and The Difficult Case of a Duck


Well - as I'm typing this we seem to have left June and settled somewhere in October, because outside it's cold, grey, windy and wet. This is not the weather for bees or butterflies; so it's unlikely that many of them will be flying at the moment - and I think that's a real shame, because one of the beautiful sights of summer has to be watching bees and butterflies foraging amongst the flowers on a warm, sunny day.

I wrote about the 'June Gap' last time and this set me thinking about which flowers the bees would  seek out in early summer.  I wanted to review my own planting and see if it was truly up to scratch for them. I planted lots of bee-friendly plants years ago, but I've lost some since. So - in a follow-up post to my last one - I've produced a very short list of some of the flowers the bees are foraging on at the moment.

One of the main bee/butterfly flowers I've planted is Scabious. Planted in a drift, this attracts plenty of bees and butterflies...

Large White Butterfly
My Alliums are also a real favourite...

Bumblebees love the Foxgloves and Comfrey on the smallholding. The honeybees love the Poached Egg Plant I took a pic of before - and Common Bistort is popular with honeybees, too...

The bees are also to be found on Poppies, Salvia and Californian lilac.  On my last post, I had some kind comments about the plants the bees and butterflies are currently loving including Cotoneaster and Catmint. If you have any more flowers that the bees are going crazy on in your garden at the moment and you can recommend them, please let me know!  I'd love to hear what the bees and butterflies are foraging on right now. 


Over the past few days I've seen two more species of butterflies for the first time this year.  First of all this Small Heath...

And then this Common Blue...

And I'm still hoping to see my first rare butterfly of the year...


I wrote in an earlier post about the swarming season for bees, which is usually any time from late April to early August and which peaks around now.  Two of my own colonies are thinking about swarming; they're making queen cells - which is the first sign that some of the bees are preparing to leave the hive.  As well as producing a new queen (which will get left behind with the rest of the bees while the existing queen leaves with the swarm), the colony sends out bees to scout around for a new home for the swarm. Many beekeepers who have lost bees recently and are looking for a new colony will leave out bait hives i.e. empty hives, to lure in a swarm. Swarming bees particularly seem to like old comb and already-used hives (rather than new ones), possibly because they're reassured then that the hive has already been tried and tested!

Just before the bees leave in a swarm, they fill up with honey (if they have some in the hive) and this is another problem for their beekeeper because this reduces the honey crop. And then the bees are off - and watching bees leave the hive en masse is an incredible sight (unless it's your own bees, of course, when it isn't fascinating, it's horrifying).

I admit I have a favourite colony, because it has a lovely, calm temper and these bees are also filling up the hive with honey. If they swarm, I'll be really sad to lose them - and anxious, too, in case the new queen isn't as good (she may not lay as well or she may have mated with some bad tempered drones and produce bad tempered off-spring).  I'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Other Flowers

Elsewhere on the smallholding - by the pond - the Yellow Flag Irises are flowering;

I love Irises - and I'd like to introduce several of these Siberian Irises my garden...

The Roses, among my favourite flowers, are starting to bloom; this is 'Arthur Bell' climbing up the side of the new barn and looking gorgeous...

The Difficult Case of a Duck

One evening last week, while I was feeding my resident Mallards, I came across an injured female Mallard. She had hurt (or broken) her leg and couldn't walk at all; she was laying down with it sticking out at an angle. Then, as I approached her to attempt some sort of rescue, I saw six tiny ducklings behind her on the pond. I'm certain they'd not long hatched out.

Well, I tried to catch her, but I couldn't, because her wings were working well enough and as soon as I got anywhere near her she quickly flew away on to the pond.  After a while of trying (and failing) to creep up on her I eventually contacted the local animal hospital and then the RSPCA (where someone came out that evening).  Both of these organisations told me that they couldn't help because she was too impossible to catch. And of course it wasn't only mum - the ducklings had to be caught as well...

The Female Mallard and Ducklings on the first evening I discovered them

Anyway, in the week since then, the ducklings have all been fine and have been happily feeding themselves on the pond. I've seen the mother a couple of times since, and thrown her some food (not easy when the geese spot what I'm doing and dive in to steal it first, but I have managed to make sure she eats something).  I haven't seen her the past few days - so I assume she's tucked up in the bushes/reeds/long grass somewhere by the pond.  I don't know how she'll get on, but at least, with strong wings, she can stay relatively safe from any predators. Perhaps Snowbird from 'Gardens and Wildlife', with her experience of wildlife rescue, has some advice for me on this. Meanwhile, the ducklings are growing stronger and look like real survivors...

The six Ducklings a week later.

No doubt they'll grow very quickly over the next few weeks and then perhaps they'll stay like the resident Mallards and make their home here (either in or on top of the Duck House!)

I hope so.

Monday 3 June 2013

Hares, Fledglings and the June Flower Gap for Bees

As usual, many of our local fields have been planted with wheat this year, and walking through them on the footpaths in early summer is like walking through long, thick grass.  Because the fields are sprayed so regularly, I always assume there's no wildlife here at all, and any wildlife about is found in the surrounding hedges and field margins (or flying high above). But a couple of weeks ago all this changed, because I came across a couple of Hares.

I love Hares; so I was thrilled to see them.  They ran along the field separately and then one disappeared.  But the other stayed around long enough for me to watch it for a while. I was walking Harry and he was kept firmly on a close lead (although, to be honest, he didn't seem that interested). The Hare didn't let me get too close, and after watching it for some minutes, I left it in peace.

I don't know whether the Hares will stay in these fields or move on - and I'm also worried for them, because they have too many predators. The worst predators are two-legged kind, and there are plenty of those around looking for them. I believe it's long overdue for these wonderful creatures to have the protection in law that they deserve.

Elsewhere the Bluebells have faded now, and at the woodland edge they've now been replaced by Yellow Archangel...

I'm still hoping to see more species of butterfly, but at the moment I'm mainly seeing the 'whites'...

Green-Veined White

Small White
...although this lovely Holly Blue did settle outside the backdoor for a while...

I've been working with Mum and Dad in their garden, and noticed that two young Robins are coming to the feeders...

I'm starting to see more fledglings and I'm expecting the Blue Tits to leave the boxes any day now.  Mum and Dad have a nest camera on a box - and the Blue Tits there already have all their blue and yellow feathers.  They seem raring to go, but the adult birds look a bit scruffy and completely shattered after all that feeding.  I'm waiting for the moment when the boldest chick begins to stick its head out of the box to have a look at the outside world.

The 'June Gap'

The 'June Gap' is a time when the bees may have difficulty foraging because of a lack of flowering plants. The blossom from the fruit trees and the spring flowers have finished (and so has the bee-banquet of oilseed rape) -  and the mid-summer garden flowers have yet to bloom. Meanwhile, in the hives, the bees have been steadily building up and the colonies are approaching their peak numbers, so a shortage of pollen and nectar coming in will naturally be a problem.  Many beekeepers will give their bees some food during this period (a mixture of sugar and water) to prevent possible starvation. All beekeepers will monitor their colonies closely to see if the 'June Gap' will be a problem for them in their area.

I've always tried to bear the 'June Gap' in mind when planting a wildlife-friendly garden on the smallholding. This year, of course, everything is late or flowering together so it's difficult to work out when any gap in forage will take place.  When I was gardening in Mum and Dad's garden, where I keep one of my beehives, the bees found plenty of forage, because my parents have deliberately planted for them.

My honeybees are loving Mum's Limnanthes Douglasii (Poached Egg Plant).  I've planted this, too, in my garden...

Instead of pulling the broccoli up, Dad has left this to flower and the bumblebees and honeybees are all over it (there's a busy flightpath between these flowers and the beehive).

On the smallholding I've come across (what I believe) is a Red Mason Bee nest (or nests) in one of a pair of old carriage lamps (once owned by my grandfather) and now placed outside our summer house...

Red Mason Bees are solitary bees. I don't know whether there are one or two nests (there seem to be different entrance and exit areas).

Finally, we finished our cold frame several weeks ago after putting in the glass and then two chains to hold it open.  The chains attach to a nail on each side of the frame to hold the roof at a number of angles...

The tomatoes and cucumbers have been planted out in the greenhouse and all the veg seeds have been sown.  After the cold spring, I feel as though I'm actually getting on top of the gardening jobs at last.