Indie Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham sticks to social distancing rules by taking his latest walk around his own garden in Little Hadham!
Jono Forgham doesn't let self-isolating get in the way of some nature spotting as he takes a closer look at the wildlife in his own garden for his latest Nature Notes column...
I had planned on one final walk for this column, but, due to the fact I am anticipating a lockdown and that wife Wendy and I have decided to self-isolate, I thought a look at what can be found in a garden would be more appropriate. Whilst the sightings I came across may not be so extensive, I trust there is plenty here to get readers out into their garden and see what they can find.
Our garden in Little Hadham is a small, narrow 25-yard affair, regular size for a Victorian terraced row. With careful observations, there is always more to find than you would first expect.
Consequently, on Sunday and Monday (March 22-23) I wandered around trying to get photos of as much as possible. Certain things were guaranteed with this policy.
One, our cat Norman was just as interested in everything as I was and frequently he got there before me. Insects long gone!
Two, I have a variety of camera lenses ranging from a 600mm one to a macro for real close-up work. In between an 18 to 400mm zoom. It goes without saying that when a bird showed I had the macro and when an insect appeared I had the big lens. Patience eventually paid off.
To begin with, the birds are plentiful. Jackdaws roost in the nearby chapel and are building nests under the tiles on a local outhouse. One of these nesting birds wandered along our roof with a good-sized twig that was never going to fit through the small entrance, but he wasn't going to give up without plenty of effort.
Carrion crows and rooks from the rookery to the south of the village were in continual flight overhead whilst great tits, blue tits and long-tailed tits visited a neighbour's feeder.
Goldfinches called from a nearby copper beech tree. Wood pigeons and collared doves courted their partners with gentle cooing and, in the distance, a great spotted woodpecker drummed his territorial notes from a resonant tree. Common buzzards and red kites are common over the garden, but not on these two days. Typical!
On the Monday morning I was out on the patio for the burgeoning dawn chorus at 5.45am – wonderful time with so much singing in the dawn light. Mistle thrush, song thrush and blackbird were the most vociferous, but also robin, dunnock and wren joining in.
Over the fields I could hear skylarks calling as they rose vertically and a pheasant screeched from a nearby hedge.
Checking the brightening sky, I saw a grey heron heading up the Ash Valley and, shortly after, four Canada geese heading in the opposite direction. I suspect the heron had moved up from its overnight roost at Amwell Reserve, where there is an active heronry. A starling sang its complicated notes from a TV aerial and a chaffinch sang its rather sombre, repetitive song.
Early spring flowers are now in bloom so these were worth checking for nectaring insects. A real surprise was coming across several Andrena bicolor bees, also known as Gwynne's mining bees.
There are 67 species in the Andrena genus; they are small bees and many require close scrutiny to identify precise species. The bicolor, a common bee of gardens and woodland, shows a yellow/orange pile on the thorax and has yellow hairy legs. It is well known for nectaring on spring flowers such as primula, of which we have an abundance.
A bluebottle, species Calliphora vomitoria, alighted upon the fence and a large Bombus terrestris bumblebee queen (buff-tailed bumblebee) noisily hovered around an old railway sleeper, looking for a nest site.
By now the sun was shining brightly so I decided to check the moth trap I had left on overnight. With the frost the night before I wasn't too optimistic about there being anything present, but I was wrong. A small quaker moth (Orthosia cruda) and a rather dully-named clouded drab. The clouded drab became the ninth garden species of the year. Last year the garden total was an impressive 395 species.
A check along the footpath by the garden gave up lesser celandine in flower along with the invasive plant green alkanet showing its small blue and white-eyed flowers, not dissimilar to forget-me-not and borage.
Our lenten rose, a hellebore, is in fine flower at present but rarely seems to attract insects, so I can only presume it is not a good nectar provider.
The catkins are still on the twisted hazel and the pear tree is just about to explode into blossom, which will be a big boon to the local insect population.
As the day warmed up more birds became apparent. A great tit is calling as I type; its "teacher, teacher" call can be loud and quite piercing. With the virtual closure of the airport, our skies are so much quieter and, add to this the drop in traffic noise, our village is a quieter place. Standing in the garden, I could hear several conversations going on, louder than normal due to social distancing.
As well as the great tit, a chaffinch burst into song. A repetitive call and easy to identify. Studies have shown that some birds – great tits and chaffinches in particular – have regional accents and that a town bird has a different pitch to that of a city bird or a country resident. It is believed that the city birds use buildings from which to echo their territorial and courtship calls whereas a country bird, usually having a lower pitch, needs the call to resonate from the trees and hedgerows. So a Glaswegian chaffinch really does sound different to a Little Hadham bird.
Just as I was contemplating finishing my search I came across a hoverfly species, my first of the year. As with most of these flies they are mainly yellow and black affairs, but all show differences in the markings. The one I picked up on was an Episyrphus eligans, a common species for late March and one that associates with fruit trees, often seen swarming in numbers in shafts of sunlight.
All in all, a pretty good list for such a small habitat and one that will increase markedly over the next eight to 12 weeks.
Finally, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Gerald Searing in early March. Only last summer, Gerald invited me to his magnificent garden near Manuden where I reported upon the four-acre field that he had totally seeded with wild flowers. An absolute stunning habitat and one that I know he was very proud of. I pass on my sincerest condolences to his wife, family and brother. A lovely man, full of a zest for life.