Sunday, 16 November 2014

It's huge!

Hello one and all, it's been a while, but I'm back! Yes, as you know, my summer got busy in a way that I never could imagine. First, Suffolk Wildlife Trust became my employer and then we moved house to a place in the country. I really am living the dream. I really am a lucky guy.

It's huge!!

So the new pad is in the middle of nowhere and the garden is huge. We have 6 trees in it, 3 apples, 2 pears and a cherry tree. We also had a rather large 5 x 7 metre strawberry patch with a buff-tail bumblebee nest in the middle of it. Problem is, our old house had a big pond with several koi in it, which are currently residing in the father-in-law's pond. So the we have decided to put a pond in where the strawberry patch is, but this has meant that I would need to remove the bumblebees first. 

Recently, I met the conservation manager of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and she was amazed that the bees were nesting so late in the year. Usually, bumblebee nests would have died off by now, but the warm weather of late has meant that they have lingered on that little bit longer. This isn't the first time I've come across a bumble nest whilst digging a pond. A few years back, whilst making the pond bigger at our old house I found that several male bumbles were head butting me as I dug around the waterfall. Turns out that their nest was under the waterfall (the area I was going to be removing), and I didn't want to destroy it. So, I got some advice from local beekeepers and removed the hive with a spade in one piece and placed it under a terracotta pot under a bush with just enough room for bees to get under the lip of the pot. They spent the rest of the summer there quite happily coming and going until it was taken over by wax moths.

So the plan was to do the same again this time, but first, I had to find out exactly where the nest was. I could see where they were entering and exiting the nest, a little hole under the leaf of a strawberry plant. Now all I had to do was trace the hole back to the nest, easier said than done!

The best time to do this is when the sun goes down, bees do not fly at night, there's no point. So once the sun had set, I got down to work. Using a long drill bit placed into the hole, I then removed the soil around it. I repeated this process over and over again, gradually getting deeper and winding my way through the strawberry patch. Eventually, after going down about 10 inches and following the tunnel for over 3 feet, I slowly pushed the drill into the hole and it pushed on something soft. I withdrew the drill bit and its withdrawal from the hole was quickly followed by an very annoyed queen who pounced on the end of the drill bit, probing with her stinger trying to find a soft part to this alien object to drive home her venom. About 3 more workers then came out to see what all the fuss was about and it was time for me to work quickly and extract the nest and move it to a safe area. The nest was found, it was about the size of a large grapefruit and all the beautifully created wax cups could be seen. These cup are where food is stored and bees grow from the eggs laid by the queens. Most of these cups were empty, this was most definitely a nest in decline. As I moved the nest to its new location, I counted at least 4 queens and about 10 workers. 

You might be surprised to see that it had more than one queen, but the sole purpose of a hive is to create the next generation and this can only be done by creating new queens who, towards the end of summer will leave the nest and find somewhere sheltered away from the ice, cold and snow of winter ready to start a new colony next spring.

Unfortunately, the bees didn't like their new location and after a couple of days, the bee nest was empty. The queens would have realised that there was probably no point in looking after the nest now and time would be better spent looking for a place to overwinter. The workers, now released from their hard labour, would become free bees with no commitment to the hive. They would live out the rest of their days idly feeding from what flowers they could find and basically resting up.

I recovered some of the remains of the nest and put it in the freezer as it's items like this that make great educational tools for kids and adults too. Very few people get to see the inner workings of a bumblebee nest.

Part of the bumblebee nest

Dark and quiet is the night, or is it?

So as you can imagine, with fields on three sides, the nights here are very dark and quiet, so much so, that when I walk out of the house at night, I can look up and see the Milky Way without even trying and every time it takes my breath away. I can't wait to dig the telescope out and get some sky bound exploring done.

The first few nights we had here, we had trouble sleeping due to the quietness of the place. You can't hear a thing except for some strange mystery bird that calls in the night. My suspicions lead me to think it's a Little Owl, but I'm not 100% sure on that. One thing I am sure on though is the unmistaken call of a Tawny Owl that sometimes flies past our windows in the dusk. This has got me planning on setting up an owl box above the wifey's studio, which is a large workshop which backs onto two of the adjacent fields and a hedgerow. An ideal place for a owl box me thinks. I also hope to set up a camera too, which is an exciting thought, so watch this space.

Other wildlife.

When we arrived here, there was a strange little bird table set up with a cage over the top. Attached to the cage were two small fat ball feeders. I duly filled these up with fat balls and was happy to see various Blue and Great tits happily peck away at them, however, I did notice how quickly the food was disappearing and couldn't believe that these little birds were eating so much food. On some mornings one of the feeders would be sitting at an angle on the table with most of the food gone, maybe the Jackdaws were having a go? Then it happened, one morning whilst me and wifey were chatting in the kitchen I glanced sideways and saw this:
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Sorry for the poor grainy image, but this is a cropped picture from a camera phone taken through a double glazed window. But as you can imagine, we were very happy to see such a bird visiting our feeders and it explains where all the fat balls have been disappearing too.

Other birds that have been frequenting the garden since we moved here are Wren's, Blue, Great and Coal tits, Chaffinch's House sparrows, large flocks of migrating Pied Wagtails, and Blackbirds, Fieldfares, Reed Bunting, Greenfinch and Robins, four of which were fighting in one of the fields at the back the other day. Among the many migrating Blackbirds we have coming through the garden, we have a resident Blackbird that is always chasing them off. How do I know he's resident? Simple, he's leucistic. Leucism is a pigment disorder in the feathers of the bird causing those particular feathers to be white and is rather prevalent in Blackbirds, although why it is not known. I remember many years ago in the 90's when I lived in Dagenham, seeing a starling that looked like it had been dipped head first in a tin of white paint. I knew then it was an abnormality and remembered speaking to an 'apparent' birder at work about who turned round and said in a rather 'stupid boy' way, "Well it's obviously not a starling then". If only I knew then what I know now.

So, Flash (as we have named him) has a white flash on his left flank below his wing appropriately and  like I say can often be seen flitting around the garden chasing off other blackbirds who are passing through. He is also a guard bird for the other birds as he usually pipes up an alarm call when Trousers our cat goes out for a wander. 

When we first moved here, much to my wifey's dismay, I found a large poo that I thought might belong to a badger. However, badgers don't really travel far from their setts and there was no known badger setts in the area. I set my trail cam up for several weeks, but nothing was seen despite various large apples laying around the garden and a good spread of peanuts too. Then, one day last week, on top of the compost heap, I found another identical dropping of the first one I found. So out with the trail cam again and a more peanuts and the mystery creature was revealed to be...
... a Fox.
It's hard to tell exactly if it's a young one or not, but I will get the trail cam set up again in the next few days and try and get some video of it.

One video I did get was of something I don't really want in my garden. I noticed some fresh holes under the concrete plinth of the workshop that seemed to big to be mouse or vole. So, camera set up, peanuts scattered around and as I expected I got video of a rat.

Now, I'm not like most people who detest rats, as far as I'm concerned, they're just like big mice or water voles, and everyone loves water voles. I know they can be destructive and for this reason, I don't want them nesting under the workshop. So I have ordered a humane trap to catch the rats and relocate them to more rural settings far from any human habitation, there's plenty of places like that to take them around here. 

One of my first jobs when we moved in was to install a TV aerial in the loft as the previous owners never owned a TV, so had no need for an aerial. Whilst I was up in the loft, I came across some droppings, ooh, bats I thought. But a quick rub of the droppings between thumb and finger revealed them to be mice droppings, as bat droppings crumble when rubbed, mice don't. I could see other evidence of mice activity in the loft insulation, but also saw some empty poison packets, so presumed all mice had been dealt with. Then, one Sunday morning, whilst me and the wifey were laying in bed, we heard some scratching from the ceiling above us, the mice were still there. I ordered a couple of humane traps, baited them with rice cake and peanut butter and set them in the loft. I checked them every 12 hours for about a week, but to no avail and then success! One of the traps had caught something, a shrew! A SHREW! What the hell are shrews doing in the loft?

A shrew, possibly a pygmy shrew.
I have no idea how a shrew got into the loft, we don't have any trees or bushes up against the house that they could've used to gain access, but there's the evidence, it was in the loft. Parts of our new house date back to the 1750's, so who knows what wildlife it is supporting. Unfortunately, it had died in the trap, most probably through shock of being trapped, I tried at least. 

The workshop outside isn't so old, yet whilst standing in it the other day, again I heard some frantic scratching from the polystyrene roof panels and found the stash of a intelligent wood mouse.

Neatly nibbled kernels in a polystyrene nest
I say intelligent as a nest in polystyrene must be one of the warmest places you can build a nest if you ask me.

Last but not least, just been out to the kitchen just to do some washing up and whilst looking out the window to see what birds were on the feeder, I noticed there were no birds on the feeder. Then I saw the reason, there, sitting on the back of a patio chair less than 5ft away from me was a Sparrowhawk. This is the first time I've seen one so close up. We usually get them at Lackford Lakes where I work, but we only see them flash past the feeders and they're usually gone by the time that anyone notices, yet this one just sat there looking at me, if only I had a camera to hand.

So as you can see, there's a lot happening here and there is more to tell. But that can all wait till next time, so till then, keep safe, keep smiling.


  1. I think your post conveys the pleasure and excitement you are experiencing from moving to your new house, and obtaining a position with Suffolk Wildlife Trust must be the icing on the cake. The presence of the Sparrowhawk in the garden could explain why there was a wire cage over the bird table.

    1. Thanks, glad you like it. Yes, working with SWT is a real pleasure that I hope continues for a long time. Very valid point about the cage, as the amount of smaller birds at the feeders would justify the sparrowhawk making my bird feeding area a regular hunting point. I will be keeping an eye out for him again in the future.

  2. Fascinating - great to see how you're "living the dream"

    1. Thanks Helen, glad you're enjoying reading it too. :)