The Garden Diary 2008


Part 2

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15 December - A dry, but grey (again) day. The temperature almost got down to freezing at dawn, but rose through the rest of the day, and with just a slight hiccup around dusk, continued to do so this evening so that at 10pm it is 6C.

Unidentified green caterpillarI had another axe waving session this afternoon to prepare more wood for the fire and as I brandished a saw I spotted this caterpillar - you couldn't help but notice it given the contrast in colour between caterpillar and plastic box!

Although it is a caterpillar that I've come across numerous times in the garden, I don't think I've actually identified the species. It measures just over 3cm in length.

The box is sitting upside-down on a Dexion-made metal stand about 1 metre tall and standing on the concrete area in front of the caravan shelter. It seems a strange place to settle, with plenty of vegetation that it could climb not far away. It is still in the same spot tonight.



21 December - The temperatures have been yo-yoing and getting a little bit milder over the last few days, after what has apparently been the coldest start to winter for thirty years. Three days ago the high was 10C. Then, on the 19th it started at just 3C just after dawn and climbed continuously through the day, reaching 9C by midnight, before continuing to peak at 12C around noon yesterday. Last night it only dropped to 9C and today it crept up again just a couple of degrees to 11C this afternoon. There was quite a lot of rain over-night between the 17 and 18th but it has remained dry since.

Well, it's the shortest day of the year today, and from now on the days will be getting longer again, so it is time to start looking ahead! I was outside, waving my axe again this morning and once again my attention was drawn to the calling of a male Great Tit at the bottom of the garden. I headed into the house to get my microphone and recorder but as is often the case, the bird had gone by the time I re-emerged.

However, it did prompt me to make a start on a job that I have neglected for months now. I spent some time in the Great Tit nestbox tower, deciding on what changes I am going to make.

Great (or Blue) Tit nestbox - work under wayThis picture shows what a very untidy place it is at the moment. As you can see, I have still to clear out the old nest - I wanted to make changes to the cameras before cleaning out the box.  That job will probably be done tomorrow.

Previously, the camera has been mounted on a stand resting on the worktop. However, this was often moved accidentally as I took still photographs, so this afternoon I mounted the camera on a  bracket that you can see on the right of the picture. Once the cables are attached to the bracket it will be possible to take  still photographs from the right side of the nest for the first time.

If you have followed my previous nestbox diaries you'll be familiar with my use of a small front-silvered mirror to 'look down' onto the very young chicks. This can be seen at the top of an extending arm to the left of the nest.  In the next couple of days I will be replacing that with a much larger mirror (front-silvered, from an old overhead projector) which will be attached to the plywood panel that you can see sloping away from the top of the nest box window. At the moment the plywood slopes at about 45, although I can adjust the angle to improve the view offered by the mirror.

The plywood sheet also serves another purpose. resting on top of it is a flashgun (which I can switch on and off remotely) while illuminates the nest through a small opening.

The white dots that cover the worktop are the droppings of  large numbers of spiders (mainly Pholcus phalangioides) which thrive in the tower. Before venturing in there this afternoon I used a long stick to gather up the mass of silk that criss-crossed the space inside. Even so, the coveralls that I wore were covered in tangled silk by the time I finished.

Bluebell and Triangular Garlic foliageIt seems that I ( and perhaps the Great Tits) are not the only ones looking forward to the new year. Over the last week or so Snowdrops, Bluebells, Triangular Garlic and Flag Irises have been producing their foliage, despite it being a good while yet before flowering commences for all but the Snowdrops.

And of course, we still have Red Campions, White Dead-nettles, Primroses and Oxlips in flower at the moment. I think the Ragged Robins have finally given up!


I've just taken a walk down the garden at 7pm, and seen several dozen earthworms out on the surface, although they retreat into their burrows very quickly when the torch light shines on them - A sure sign of how the soil is still relatively warm. I went back out a few minutes later with a temperature probe that I could push into the soil to a depth of just over 13cm. I tested the soil in various parts of the garden where I saw earthworm activity and obtained readings ranging from 9.3C down to 8.6C, with readings taken near the top of the West Wing slope being below 9C. The air temperature is between 10.5 - 11C (depending on which thermometer I look at!).

I wouldn't be surprised to see a hedgehog out and about later on if it stays like this!

Frogs in the big pond - 1


With early signs of the new year already starting to feature here, I must turn my attention to the ponds (neglected since before the summer!) once I have sorted the nestbox.

Tonight around 8pm, with the water temperature just above 8.5C, amongst the tangle of old vegetation I have just counted twelve quite mature frogs. I've no doubt that I would find more if I spent longer searching.


Frog (with shore-fly) in the big pond


Look closely at this one and you will see a shore-fly (probably Psilopa nitidula) perched just about its eye.

As usual, my top priority task will be to clear the shallow end of the big pond ready for spawning in the early Spring. It will be easier to do that job while the water isn't too cold.



December 22 - The glum, mild approach to Christmas continues with the temperature only dropping to just under 10C last night and peaking (!) today at just under 11C. It's not just been dull today, but there has been an almost continuous light drizzle.  The forecast is for this to continue until at least Christmas Day - yuk!

How different is the weather being experienced by our friends in Maine (US). Laurie and Drew have had some 2ft of snow over the last couple of weeks, plus an ice storm. While it makes for some picturesque scenes (see their diary), it is cold, very very cold, with temperatures as low as 0.4F (that's -17.5C!) without taking wind chill into account!

Back here, I haven't seen a hedgehog, and the food I put out hasn't been touched. but if the forecast is correct I wouldn't be surprised if one does turn up this week. Tonight the lower foliage of the bamboo plant next to my shed is a busy place with lots of young woodlice, ants, springtails (as far as I could tell, all the globular species Dicyrtomina saundersi), all of which seemed to be feeding on the honeydew deposited by aphids. There were also several small hunting spiders and a small harvestman, but no snails or slugs. However, there are slugs in plenty down at ground level.

Barkflies were also noticeable by their absence from the bamboo, unlike the dozens that are active in the log store.  Since I needed to move the logs about, I haven't seen quite so many on the log that I had been concentrating on. Nevertheless, there were dozens on it tonight, with quite a few on other logs to either side of it. Also, I could see a lot more on the pile of unseasoned timber which is adjacent - perhaps they are gradually migrating across. If so that is good news as that pile of timber will not be used until next winter.

I forgot to mention that the green caterpillar I spotted a week ago had disappeared from the plastic container (and the metal stand) by the morning after I took the photograph - was it spotted by a bird?


23 December  - It looks as though the mild spell is slowly slipping away, the forecast suggesting that we will see below freezing night-time temperatures by the end of the week. Since yesterday's high of nearly 11C the temperature dropped through the night to a low of 8.5C by breakfast, climbing back up to just over 9C by lunch before slipping slowly again to 8C at just before 10pm. Once again it's been cloud all day, and this evening there's light drizzle.

Just as I suspected would happen, the mild spell has brought at least one hedgehog out of hibernation. The food that I put out yesterday was untouched this morning, still there just before dusk, but nearly all gone by 6pm when I caught sight of a hedgehog heading off into the undergrowth. I replenished the food supply and it was visited again (this time unseen by me) some time before 8pm.


27 December - A belated Season's Greetings to you - I hope it has gone well for you. For us, Christmas has been quite a family affair, with the added excitement of it being our lovely grand-daughter's first. Today has been largely a rest day.

Since the last entry, the weather has remained dry, but the cloud has been reluctant to clear. We had some sunshine on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day but both days were largely cloudy, and today has been much the same. In the meantime, the temperature has dropped steadily so that a high of just over 6C on Christmas day was followed by 4C yesterday and about 2.5C today. While on Christmas Eve the overnight low temperature was 6C, Breakfast time on Boxing Day saw a low of 1.5C and last night 0.5C, so there may have been a touch of frost around dawn, although I missed it (dawn, I mean!).

Great Tit nestbox - cctv images


I have done something useful today in that I cleaned out the Great Tit nestbox, and reconnected the two cctv cameras. As usual with this nestbox, there were no indications that it has been used for roosting at any time since the previous nesting season. With the Great Tits active in the garden every day I'm optimistic that we could well have then nesting here again next Spring.

The cameras are now linked to my time-lapse recorder which will record the images in a continuous loop from now on so that I can watch out for early inspection visits - in the past we have seen Blue Tits check out the box before the end of December!



29 December - After hovering between 0 and 3C for the last two days, last night the temperature dropped, dipping to just below -2C by 8am this morning. Today, in hazy sunshine it has struggled to a 'high' of just 1.5C.

Great Tit nestbox -wide-angle view of area to the rearI've made a bit more progress down at the Great Tit box.

This picture shows the area behind the nest box with the area surrounding the nest window now treated with matt black paint to reduce reflections during photography, and with the mirror in place.

Below the shelf you can see a tv that is used for making camera adjustments. It also enables me to observe activity in the nest without me having to climb up into the tower - useful when I have a still camera set up with a remote cable release. In the nest itself is my 'photographer's assistant who helps me ensure that the cctv cameras are focused correctly.


Great Tit nestbox - showing the mirror in action

This shot gives an idea of how the mirror offers me a different angle to photograph from. I will be fine tuning the angle before nesting commences.

To the left of the window, the piece of black tape is a tab that allows me to pull the glass out. However, during nesting the glass is changed by pushing a second sheet in from the opposite side so that there is never a gap through to the nest itself.

Great Tit nestbox - test images taken direct (left) and via mirror


My photographer's assistant as seen in low quality test images directly (left image) and via the mirror  - the difference in viewpoint should be enough for me to 'look down' into the nest cup. It is an arrangement that worked quite well for me this year using a much smaller mirror, and I'm looking forward to having the greater field of view that this mirror gives me.

Great Tit nestbox - crossed polariser filter in place


With the box facing east, during the nesting season there is a problem in the early mornings with sunlight affecting the cctv image. To counteract this I use a filter consisting of two pieces of polarising filter set at 90 to each other. Using the filter pair in this way drastically reduces the amount of light passing through them.

In this picture you can see the filter attached to an articulated arm which allows me to position it to cover just the nestbox entrance in the cctv image.

There are still some other bits to sort out in this nest box but the main preparations are now completed, and I'll next report on it when I see the first inspection visits take place.

I would like to sort out the Starling boxes next, a rather more awkward undertaking. At least one bird roosts in them so I shall be switching on their cctv cameras over the next few days to monitor what is going on before I venture up a ladder! Last year I had to remove, dismantle and thoroughly clean the cameras as they had become infested with mites. I sealed the cameras after that but I wouldn't be surprised if I have to do the same thing again.  At least, dealing with the boxes in cold weather means that the smaller occupants shouldn't be too active, although I have suitable disposable coveralls, rubber gloves and mask just in case!!!

Tonight, although stars are visible over less than half the sky as there is some high cloud cover,  the temperature outside is nearing -1C at 9pm, and I can see a frost on surfaces.


30 December - A bright day in more than one way! First, after the temperature dipped to -3C in the early hours it has been on an upward creep all day, getting above freezing around noon. At 5.30pm it is 0C at both ends of the garden under clear skies.

We had another log delivery during the morning, something that kept me busy for several hours, although I didn't complete the job of moving the timber down to the West Wing - to be finshed tomorrow.

Yesterday I promised that I wouldn't comment on the Great Tit nestbox until I recorded the first visit - well, it happened today while I was dealing with the logs!

Great Tit nestbox - Male makes an inspection visit


It was 10.27am when the first face appeared at the entrance of the box. The bird spent a couple of minutes there, looking around and occasionally peeping in before entering.

Its broad breast stripe indicated that it was a male, and it  was clearly not just searching for food, hardly pecking at the box. After about half a minute in suddenly crouched down in the left-back corner


Great Tit nestbox - Male joined by female for an inspection visit


as its partner appeared at the entrance. She only hesitated briefly before she too entered the box, landing with one leg on the males back. His reaction was to crouch lower with his beak open, but keeping silent.

He remained in the same position while the female apparently ignored him as she started to look around the box. A quarter of a minute after the female entered the male suddenly departed,


Great Tit nestbox - female makes an inspection visit


leaving his partner to continue her inspection for another half a minute before she too departed. One of the pair looked in again (but didn't enter) at 11.10am and a bird approached the entrance at 11.14am, and finally at 12.18pm.

This morning's visit followed exactly the sort of behaviour that we are used to seeing from the Great Tits during inspection visits. Along with the territorial behaviour that I have already been seeing in the garden it bodes well for the Spring. I can't be sure that it is even the first visit, although there have been no signs of even a bird looking in over the previous two days since I switched on the cameras.


In the light of today's visits I will be starting the nestbox diaries as soon as we enter 2009, before the garden diary becomes monopolised by events in the boxes.


31 December - Another year comes to an end, this one without a glimpse of sunlight all day! While the temperature has remained below freezing (-1.5C for most of the time) the skies have remained stubbornly grey, making things seem quite dismal.

Not surprisingly there haven't even been faces at the entrance of the Great Tit box today, let alone a bird inside, although both birds have been in the garden for much of the time. While they may have been put off by the conditions, it was quite amusing earlier to watch a pair of Collared Doves engaged in courtship - at least, playing a sort of 'follow the leader' around the garden.

Click on images to see larger versions

2008 Garden Diary Index...Autumn holiday..Next chapter (January 2009)