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Wildlife reports 2020
thanks to Gill Massey
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Despite the current downpours (much needed by gardeners), and some rather autumnal early morning mists, we are now in high summer. It’s a quiet time of the year for plants and birds. The swifts and cuckoos are on their way south again, and other birds, now the hurly burly of bringing up young has ended, are moulting. With old feathers being shed, including their flight feathers, and new ones coming through, birds feel vulnerable at this time and tend to skulk silently in shrubs and hedgerows until their smart new suits are ready. Some chattering from the orchard sparrows and the call if the wood pigeon make up most of the birdsong now. The wild flowers, whose main aim is to flower and set seed, have achieved their floral ambitions and many are now in the business of seed dispersal, by wind like the dandelion, or relying on passing creatures to shake the seed out for them. Luckily for the bees and other pollinators some flowers are still doing their bit. Birdsfoot trefoil, the food plant of some blue butterflies has a long flowering season, as does the purple loosestrife around our pond. The little yellow toadflax also comes into its own in late summer.
Given some sunny days insects are doing anything but skulk, and the air is full of hums and buzzes. The whirr of dragonfly wings can be heard over the pond where I recently saw an Emperor dragonfly swooping over the water hoovering up almost any other flying insect. Blue damselflies seemed to avoid predation, and the bees were busy on the purple loosestrife which we would much rather see along our riverbanks than the invasive Himalayan balsam which crowds out our other native plants. Butterflies have also been making the most of sunny days; meadow browns and gatekeepers seem to have had a good year with speckled woods and common blues seen regularly too. Grasshoppers have enjoyed the patches of long grass that we leave in the orchard, and earlier in the year I spotted several thick-legged flower beetles on some hemlock flowers. These bright green iridescent beetles have thickened back legs, hence their name. Umbelliferous flowers like the hemlock (which seeds around rather too freely) are enjoyed by many insects and always worth a glance in passing. We are hoping to plant some wild parsnip and wild carrot which have similar flowers to encourage more insects in the orchard.
Ripening apples, blackberries, elderberries, the bright berries on the lords and ladies at the bottom of the hedges, and clusters of red guelder rose berries in the hedgerows remind us that autumn is waiting just around the corner, but hopefully we shall see more sunny days to be enjoyed by us and the butterflies.
Well, we may have had to wait for Spring to arrive, but when she finally put in an appearance she gave the Community Orchard its finest display of blossom ever. Evidence of the busyness of our bees can be seen now as tiny fruit develop. Not just on the fruit trees either, the broom bush was a mass of yellow flowers looking wonderful against the blue skies and full of bees. If you didn’t manage some permitted exercise then there are still flowers to see. Much to our relief the yellow rattle germinated (rather patchily) and is coming into flower in the long grass of the meadow area. The first ox eye daisies and wild geraniums can be seen in the pollinator bed and the yellow flag iris are flowering at the pond edges in the wildlife area, where red campion is brightening the shade of the hawthorn tree under which Speckled Wood butterflies have been fluttering in and out of the shadows.
Much less bright but worthy of a visit are our two spindle trees towards the back of the wildlife area. They are covered in flowers for the first time. Their little flowers may not be spectacular or showy but repay a closer look. Their four pale green petals surround a green central sphere which looks rather like a tiny old fashioned sputnik with four protuberances which are the stamens and a central one which is the stigma. Later in the year they will make up for a certain lack of glamour now by turning into bright orange berries inside a pink casing.
Birdsong is tailing off now as the parent birds are busy with chicks, but when I entered the wildlife area the other day the hawthorn tree was full of young starlings filling the air with their joyful crowing and calling, a real sound of late spring and early summer along with the high cries of the swifts as they wheel overhead.
After some heroic efforts turning out the compost bins our volunteers were rewarded not just with some nice dark, crumbly compost, but with the sight of several slow worms who enjoy the dark warmth of a compost heap. Our frogs have mostly left the pond but most of their tadpoles, alas, have been eaten by the rogue goldfish some unthinking person put in. Luckily a friend of the orchard is putting in a great effort and has caught and rehomed many if not all. The newts, who also fancy a tadpole dinner, can still be seen in the pond depths and blue damselflies have appeared again. High summer will soon be here, with what weather remains to be seen.
It is that time of year again, or, more accurately, that time of every other year. Time for clearing out the wildlife pond in the orchard. It is the major ambition of every pond or small area of water to work steadily at turning itself into dry land. Waterside vegetation edges inwards, small, innocuous clumps of water plants bulk up, are invaded by grass and other unwelcome plant visitors, and turn into large islands which then link up with each other. Unless this habit is checked a pond will turn itself into a bog and then dry land in a surprisingly short space of time.
The orchard was lucky to enlist the help of Nick Gray from Dorset Wildlife Trust, who is over 6ft tall and the possessor of a good serviceable pair of waders, both excellent qualifications for mucking about in a pond of uncertain depth. There is a fairly narrow window of opportunity for doing this work. Do it too early in the winter and you risk exposing disturbed wildlife to the worst of winter weather. Leave it too late and you risk upsetting frogs and newts with romance on their minds. Nick's heroic efforts in hacking up recalcitrant and solid lumps of vegetation with a saw meant that we had a lot more clear water. We examined the surplus clumps for wildlife, returning a few surprised frogs and newts to shelter by and in the pond, and left the unwanted vegetation next to the water for a few days so any other critters could crawl out. We may not be enjoying all this wet weather but it will help the pond and its inhabitants settle down to await better weather and a mate.
Spring has been tapping her foot impatiently for a while now, waiting for her turn on the stage of the year, and teasing us with birdsong and glimpses of primroses, but winter is not quite yet ready to relinquish her hold. Remember we had snow on 1st March last year! So leave some of those dead stems and seedheads in your garden as cover for all your own wildlife, while we all wait and hope for warmer drier weather.