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🐞 St Mary's Field: Wildlife reports 2018

August
The cold, dull, wet spring and early summer has turned into a heatwave and drought, but on the whole the wildlife is coping.
Insects of course generally love this weather. On a visit to the orchard this morning, one of my first sights was a comma butterfly sunning itself on a hedge. Although adult butterflies love sunny weather there has been some worry that there will not be much in the way of food plants for their caterpillars to eat when the eggs hatch out, and a whole generation will disappear, although plants like birdsfoot trefoil, which is a food plant for many blue butterflies, are able to put up with dry weather. The orchard is also hosting quite a lot of wasps drawn to the fallen and rotting apples, which also attract Red Admiral butterflies in particular. Wasps aren’t everyone’s favourite insect, but I have a nest in my garden and having seen a wasp catching a fly and one munching on a caterpillar I am inclined to live and let live.
The pollinator bed has coped pretty well with the vagaries of the weather. In the spring, we sowed some annual cornfield wildflower seeds. These like disturbed soil, and corn marigold, cornflowers, poppies and corncockle have all flowered and are now setting seed. We also have some perennials wildflowers, with meadow cranesbill, wild basil and St John’s wort adding variety. Hopefully we shall put in more next year.
Our pond has been topped up with tap water which is not ideal as it can encourage algae, but has enabled us to keep the water at a reasonable level. Most of the adult frogs and newts will have left the pond some time ago and be hiding out at the bottom of hedges and other sheltered places. All of the pond plants are doing well and the flower spires of the purple loosestrife are looking particularly good this year. It would be nice to see more of this native along our riverbanks rather than the invasive and non native Himalayan Balsam which grows so vigorously that it leaves no room for anything else.
It’s fairly quiet on the bird front (apart from Herring Gulls!) as most birds have brought up their young and are moulting. With their feathers not in the best state, they feel vulnerable to predators and tend to skulk out of sight in hedges.With their usual food of worms, slugs and snails in very short supply because of the dry weather, blackbirds and thrushes will also be glad of our fallen apples.
When and if! it rains we may well get a second flush of wildflowers in the late summer and early autumn. Meanwhile we can enjoy seeing bees and butterflies enjoying the sunshine.
(Thanks to Gill Massey)
1st April (thanks to Gill Massey) Good news! Taking advantage of a day when the sun actually came out, we visited the pond in the orchard wildlife area, and were delighted to find that we now have thousands of very tiny tadpoles. They were obviously unaffected by the snow and ice earlier in the year when the pond froze over for several days. Most were basking in wriggly masses in the shallow, sunny (and therefore warmer) end of the pond. Many will end up as a snack for the dragonfly larvae and our newts, but our frog population appears to be thriving. Lots of birdsong to be heard, too: robins, blackbirds, starlings, blue tits, a wren and a chiffchaff all establishing their territories. Flowering celandines, dandelions and white dead nettle are providing food for the pollinators, reminding the gardeners amongst us that early nectar is vital for these insects, and to plan our spring gardens accordingly. The RHS has lists of plants both wild and cultivated that are good for pollinators on its website, if you need any ideas: https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/conservation-biodiversity/wildlife/perfect-for-pollinators
Meanwhile, it looks like good weather for frogs for the next few days.
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February/March
Breaking news from our working morning in the orchard (11th March) is that we have a lot of frogs and frogspawn in our wildlife pond. The surface was literally heaving with frogs mating and generally swimming around enthusiastically. Quite a few were hanging out with their heads just above water keeping their eyes on the activity and ignoring watching humans. Apart from the visual enjoyment this gave us all, ( I think everyone stopped by the pond at some point in the morning), we had the pleasure of hearing the frogs croaking. Actually the rather lovely sound was more like a continual purring than croaking. It was good to know that they had all survived the cold weather as the pond had frozen over for a day or so, but we have some quite deep water at one end which no doubt helped. Lots of birdsong accompanied us as we worked; blackbirds, robins, wrens and our first hearing of a chiff chaff.
At our last working morning in early February we had a brief sighting of a small brown bird with a pale eye stripe which was almost certainly a chief chaff. These little birds used to migrate in the winter to southern Europe and north Africa, and many still do, but an increasing number now overwinter in southern Britain and Ireland. Their little call of “chiff chaff” is one of the real signs of spring. Primroses and celandines are out and the first green shoots are appearing oh the hawthorn.Spring may have been dragging her heels recently but I’m hoping that she’s at last getting a move on.

Gill Massey
January 28th
Last Sunday's mild, cloudy and dry weather proved ideal for our annual pond tidying. We were lucky to have the services of Steve Scorey, who, as well as being an expert on ponds, also has the full length waders to enable him to boldly go into areas of the pond where not many have gone before.
Our plan was to remove some of the more vigorous bull rushes, iris and grass which were doing their best to turn the pond back into dry land, to leave more clear water. The window for doing this is extremely narrow, as it has to be in the winter to minimalise disturbance, but not when the temperature is too low.
Steve removed several large clumps of vegetation which we left for some time by the pond’s edge to enable any wildlife capable of doing so to creep back into the water. Over twenty frogs and possibly a toad or two plus several palmate newts all managed with minimal help to return to their home. All of these amphibians have just returned to the water after winter hibernation in order to breed. Other critters needed a more hands on approach. Dragonfly and alder fly larvae, water hog-lice (aquatic cousins to woodlice), pirate spiders, tiny freshwater clams and a huge quantity of rams horns snails were amongst those helped back into the pond.
The healthy quantity of (slightly indignant) frogs, toads and newts is an indication that, hopefully, we shall soon see some spawn. Winter’s not gone but spring will soon be bustling along.

Thanks to Gill Massey

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