The Garden Diary

December - 2001

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1 December - I did not expect to be writing about caterpillars in December, but here we go -

Last night I put into my pond diary a grabbed image of a caterpillar that I spotted in the rain soaked moss by the pond. Tonight is colder but dry under starry skies, and when I looked at the same spot just before 9pm I spotted not one but four of them. They were sensitive to the light and stopped moving.

Here are images of two. Each one is 2.5 - 3cm long. If you click on the picture to see a larger version, you will see that the left hand caterpillar shows the three pairs of thoracic legs, four pairs of prolegs and claspers that distinguish it as a caterpillar rather than a saw-fly larva.

My caterpillar book failed again to give me an identification, but a helpful member of the natural-history newsgroup (Liz) has come up with Cabbage Moth (Mamestra brassicae). As the name suggests, they can be serious pests of cabbages, feeding on almost any low-growing herbaceous plant, but also some deciduous shrubs and trees (including Oak and Birch). It seems that milder conditions encourages them to produce more than one generation a year.

4 December - I have not had any photo-opportunities these last couple of days.

This morning I found three spots around the far end of the pond where a small amount of digging has been done, in the area where the caterpillars were found. I suspect the culprit is a fox, so I have set up a CCTV camera to record activity through some of tonight just in case there is a return visit.

Very little else has happened of note over the last couple of days. The sparrows, blackbirds, blue tits, collared doves and the robin can be seen through much of the day. A few starlings will spend some time here and the Dunnock seems to be a regular morning visitor now. Yesterday a quartet of Long-Tailed Tits crossed the garden but did not stop to feed.

5 December - A check of the video recording made last night revealed one visit to that part of the garden by a cat and two by a fox, although neither animal stopped at the places where digging had taken place place.

Another look at the area this morning reinforces my theory that the caterpillars were the target. I could not seen any of them last night.

To give an idea of scale in the captured image, the stepping stones being crossed by the fox measure 17in (43cm) across. This would make the fox about 47in (118cm) long (nose to tail).

A brief moment of excitement in the garden this morning when a Sparrowhawk made its appearance with a pair of Jays following close behind. After causing a brief moment of panic the trio left empty handed(?).

As I write this the birdbath is rather crowded with a mixture of Sparrows and Starlings - there must be a couple of dozen of both feeding here at 1pm.

At 9pm I checked around the pond and found just one caterpillar feeding. I have set up the CCTV camera to try to get a lower angle view of any fox that passes by the pond.

6 December - Too busy doing other things today to pay any notice to the garden, but I did check the video recordings of last nights activities - one cat and one moth in eight hours of recordings!

7 December - On another day when I will not be able spend much time watching the garden, it is a bright, sunny morning (10C at 11.45am).

The solitary Buttercup is still hanging on, so I thought another picture was needed to record it. As you can see, the second bud (to the right) is still tightly closed.

Much of the day I have been doing some painting and other jobs under the caravan cover. For a lot of the time this morning I worked to the combined choirs of the sparrows in the Hawthorn and the Ivy tree. I wonder why they keep up this chirping for such long periods of time. Surprisingly the noise did not attract the attentions of the Sparrowhawk and I did not see it at all today.

I have recorded a short sample of the Sparrows' 'singing'. It is a wave file of 171KB and you can download it by clicking here.

8 December - Another nice day with very little activity in the garden. However, there was more digging in the garden last night with no camera set up! This time there are three 'digs' by the small pond - I have set up the CCTV camera to watch over the area tonight. I am certain that it is the work of a fox, although even with foxes coming into the garden for many years this had never happened before.

At 6.30pm there was a single Cabbage Moth caterpillar out on the grass in an air temperature of <1C.

12 December - When I was checking the pond tonight I noticed several very small fungi fruiting bodies in the area where the caterpillars have been (they were not to be seen tonight). I shall take some photographs tomorrow.

Over the last few days I have been busy doing other things and have not spent time watching the garden. Bird activities to note include a flock of swans that flew over, very low - I have not seen that here for a long time. They sound as though their wings need oiling! There were Long-tailed Tits about today, and the Dunnock has become a regular again.

The fox(?) has been doing a little bit of digging since my last report and I have set the CCTV camera up again tonight to see if I can catch it in action.

13 December - An interesting start to the day this morning. I have just been chopping up some peanuts in a food processor (the Dunnocks and Robins appreciate these) and when I stepped outside my back door I disturbed a Goldcrest in our Christmas tree (Scots Pine - 4ft high in a pot!). I retreated quickly and when I looked out through a window the Goldcrest returned and I realised there was a second one still in the tree! As I write this they are now hunting in the lower parts of the bamboo plant by my workshop shed.

When they departed I went out to scatter some of the peanuts and was greeted by a pair of robins. As soon as I threw down some of the peanut bits one Robin went down, took some and flew to the other, which begged to be fed - a bit of bonding going on here! I must buy some mealworms.

On the down side, I have gone through last night's videos. Eight hours of recording revealed nothing - not even a cat! The videos will be recording again tonight.

Here are some images of the fungi that I mentioned yesterday. There are several groups of them among the moss at one end of the pond. The tallest stems are about 5cm tall and the caps 7mm across. Click on the picture for a larger version.

I have not yet tried to identify them.



15 December - A brief report on the CCTV records of the last two nights - Thursday night saw a visit by a fox at about 1am to a spot by the small pond where a hole had been dug previously. There were no good images worth capturing.

On Friday I set up the camera to cover that area more closely and during the evening, around 8pm I was rewarded with the sight of a mouse crossing the view! Shortly before midnight it crossed back the other way, perhaps heading for home as it was not seen again for the rest of the night. There was no sign of the fox.

Once I have managed to capture a better image of the fox I may zoom the camera lens in even closer to try for an usable image of the mouse.

A Winter Moth (see entry for 28 November) appeared on the outside of the kitchen door this evening.

16 December - The fox made a brief reappearance on the CCTV video recording at 3am this morning, at the site of a previous dig. The only other visitor to the area covered by the camera was a local cat.

The buttercup has now lost its last petal. I am not sure how successful it has been in producing fertile seeds. The second flower bud has not opened, although it is showing signs of yellow petals so I shall wait and watch to see if it will succeed in opening.



18 December - I am not able to pay too much attention to things in the garden at the moment and it is really looking pretty sorry for itself. The weather is cold, staying within a few degrees of freezing much of the time, although we are not seeing much in the way of frosts.

The last two mornings have seen visits from a Song Thrush. It was out of reach of the digital camera, but I have taken some pictures this morning using my T90 camera. The light was not good so I must keep my fingers crossed that it stayed still for long enough as the pictures were taken.

I had the film developed this afternoon, so here it is - I was quite pleased with the results despite the poor light. The picture shown is just part of the negative - click on the picture for a larger version.

Other bird activity has been largely confined to the usuals - the House Sparrows, Starlings, Collared Doves, Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Robins and the Dunnock. Although I see Chaffinches in my neighbour's tree they do not come into the garden to feed at the moment. I saw one Coal Tit in the Leylandii yesterday.


19 December - A dull start to the morning has been brightened by a quartet of Long-Tailed tits spending some time in the hawthorn. I pointed my camera their way but the light levels were just too low for birds that will not stay still. Instead I have dug out a picture I managed to get of them a couple of years ago as they hunted in a Buddlea plant near the house (even then I was not able to get a sharp image). Click on the picture for a larger version.

The Song Thrush was also an early visitor.




20 December - A cloudless morning sees the Collared Doves in what has become their regular perch to soak up some early sunshine. This is our (almost) resident pair at the top of our neighbour's Birch tree.

The Song Thrush has become a regular now. It seems to particularly interested in a couple of dates that I threw out.

While it was eating, I was distracted by a pair of Great Tits that were inspecting the birdbox. They were there for a while, taking turns to go to the entrance to look in, while a Blue Tit looked on from a nearby branch.

I have yet to see any Blue Tits go to the box this Winter. By about this time last year a pair were starting to visit it on a regular basis.

While watching the Thrush through my binos I spotted that next Spring's Snowdrops have started emerging. When I have time I must take a long look around the garden for other emerging plants.


21 December - We have had a rare visit from a Feral Pigeon this morning. The picture does not do justice to the iridescent pink colour below its green neck.

After an early morning feeding visit by one Song Thrush, in the afternoon I spotted two of them (- a pair?) in the trees at the bottom of the garden.



22 December - Another bird that does not seem to be done justice by photographs is the Starling in its spangled Winter plumage. This one is contemplating the ground under the Hawthorn before going down to feed.

When I first looked out this morning, as dawn was just arriving, the first bird seen was a Song Thrush. Its counter-camouflage worked well and it virtually disappeared against the backround each time it stopped moving.


23 December - The coldest start to a day so far this Winter with the outside temperature registering as -3C by the house and -7C by the pond. It was a mrning for hot water in the bird bath.

The song Thrush was here numerous times in the early morning (I left home about 10am and did not return until late this evening).

24 December - Typically British weather meant that by this morning the frost that was on the ground last night had given way to dampness, with water on top of the ice as a result of early morning rain. By the end of the day all the ice on the pond had disappeared, and at 9pm the temperature outside was +7.5C and it is windy!

Since I last mentioned it there has been no further digging by a fox. On the plant front, the last of the Red Campion and Selfheal flowers disappeared in the last few days, although there are still a few White Dead Nettles in bloom. I have not yet had chance to search for further evidence of next Springs plants making their appearance.

25 December - Christmas Day - Click on the picture for a larger version of my Christmas card to all of you.

Thank you for following my diaries - I hope you have a good Christmas.

Of all mornings to decide to rain - no chance of a white Christmas! At 10am it is pouring down and out Collared Doves are using it to take a shower. They are perched in the tree, as photographed a couple of days ago, and stretching one wing at a time up almost vertically. After five or so seconds they resume preening.

By 10pm the skies were clear and the temperature had dropped to freezing!

26 December - A late start for me this morning -outside at 9 15am it is frosty (just below 0C) under clear blue skies and I have just filled the birdbath with warm water. I came back into the house just in time to see a first for me. Looking out of the window I spotted the Great Tit pair in the Birch tree by the bird box for the second time in a week.

I switched on the video recorder as one of them decided to enter the box and inspect it. I have not seen a Great Tit in there before even though the entrance has always been just about big enough for their use.


In the bottom right corner you may just make out a large spider. This was completely ignored as the Great Tit spent about a minute in there.

Twenty minutes later and the Starlings managed to empty most of the water out of the birdbath as they queued up for their morning splash!

Around noon I spotted a Wren making a brief visit. Shortly afterwards a Blue Tit made a number of prolonged visits to the entrance of the bird box, without entering it.

29 December - Snow for the first time this Winter - well, just about! You could use the fingers of one hand to count the flakes/minute falling at 9.30am, and with the temperature above freezing there is nothing to photograph.

Another prospective lodger for the box has made three visits so far this morning. This is the first time I have seen a Blue Tit in there since the end of nesting, back on the 1st June. It was around Christmas that last year's family seemed to 'take possession' of the box before starting to nest during March.





During the rest of the morning frequent visits were made, some lasting several minutes. Twice, the bird in the box went onto the defensive as another Blue Tit arrived at the entrance. As I watched from the house there were several occasions when a 'third' Blue Tit was chased away from the Birch tree by the box.

While watching the Blue Tits my attention was also drawn to the House Sparrows chasing each other between the Ivy tree and the Hawthorn. In one 'incident' a female was the centre of attraction briefly for five males.

I have not had much time to watch the garden over the last few days, but there has been no further digging seen since I last reported about the fox. The second Buttercup bud is still developing and looks as though it could open in the next couple of days. I see Chaffinches come to the garden throughout the day, although they never seem to come to the feeding stations near the house. Finally, the Song Thrush(s) and the Dunnock(s) continue to make several visits each day to feed, they have become regulars now.

30 December - On a sunny, cloudless and cold morning the Blue Tit visits to the box are continuing apace. It appears to be the same bird each time. I need to look more carefully at its markings, especially the central belly-streak. I have not seen the Great Tits since their visit on Boxing Day.

Just after mid-day, and there is a female House Sparrow busy gathering dried grass under the hawthorn. She is having a really good tug at a bit that is still attached.

31 December - Another morning like yesterday, with the temperature outside down to -2C. All the usual birds have been here to feed, including the Dunnock and the Song Thrush, and the Blue Tit(s) visits to the box continue. I have just been entertained by a group of Starlings enjoying the warm water I put into the bird bath - I need to refill it now!

Some time around 2am our sleep was interrupted by the calling of a fox. Its movement around the garden triggered our outside lighting so we were able to watch as it explored the plot.

Late this morning we had a small taster of what it would be like to live next to a Rookery when twenty rooks settled in the topmost branches of one of the trees nearest to us in the Bickfields Nature Park. The seemed to be enjoying the sunshine and had to tell the world that they were! There have been a few flying about the area for a while, but this is the largest gathering I have seen in those trees.

One of the sad sights to be found in the garden as the year comes to an end is this remnant of one of the last attempts of our Blackbird to nest this year. Having survived a couple of attacks over the previous years, the female never fully recovered. Nevertheless, she built a nest in March and laid three eggs. When this nest was robbed she built a replacement and this time the eggs hatched. Unfortunately the chicks left the nest too early, could not fly and soon disappeared. She went on to build three more nest, all of which were abandoned. By the end of the nesting season she and her partner were under a great deal of pressure from a rival pair. The last time I saw the female was just before I left for my summer holidays. In late Autumn a 'new' pair moved in and at the end of November I watched as the female systematically destroyed the old nests in the Hawthorn and the Burberris. The picture shows what is left of the nest in the Burberris.

Both of the 'new' Blackbirds have been feeding here today, both on the ground and taking berries on the Hawthorn.

Not a wild flower, but I thought I should include this image of a Forsythia flower. I noticed half a dozen of the blossoms open this afternoon, giving one of the few glimpses of colour in the garden today (other than the haws and rose hips). The buttercup bud has refused to open, although it still looks as though it could burst open at any moment - perhaps next year!

In case I do not add to the entry before midnight (GMT), I wish any readers of my diaries a

Happy New Year!

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