Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Squirrel feast

I've seen many strange things in this Hillingdon garden but a squirrel tucking into chocolate cake really takes the... er... biscuit!

Frost Fox

Here is Olive coming to beg for breakfast this cold and frosty morning, her eyes like golden headlamps.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Olive is flourishing

We started feeding little Olive (formerly Oliver), the runt of Russet's litter, because we doubted if she'd make it through the winter and we wanted to give her a fighting chance. She's now pretty near full grown and by the look of her, she should be in breeding condition soon, in which case her litter will by vying with Russet's to mop up the scraps on the lawn.

More foxes expected

The big vixen is pregnant again. No wonder she has been driving off this year's litter. This morning, in a hard frost and 3 degrees C, she was eating the bread I'd just thrown out for the birds. Unlike her daughter Olive, she is far too shy to pose for her photograph. But she is a magnificent, dark auburn beast with a massive, white-tipped brush. I have named her Russet after her colouring and am hoping to sneak a photo of her soon.

Perky little Olive still appears at our mealtimes, sitting in full sight with head cocked, hoping for a handout. I have seen her fight bitter battles with her mum, even sustaining a nasty bite on her back, but it hasn't deterred her. She knows what side her turkey sandwich is buttered all right.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Olive's den

Our garden is the perfect habitat for a fox. It has a wild nature garden down the bottom, it has a water supply - the pond - and it has food, all the after-dinner scraps and birds' bread. Now out next door neighbour has informed us that Olive has dug herself a den under the shed. Not the shed down the bottom in the wild area, but the shed right up close to the house and next to the fence, and her earthworks have provided a handy tunnel for next door's pedigree Bengal cats to escape through. Normally they are held captive by an electric fence - though Chi-Mimi, the crazy one, has outwitted every attempt to keep her in and makes massive leaps from their shed roof to ours and is frequently to be found asleep in one of our kitchen cupboards, or even the bread bin. I suppose a squashed white loaf makes a nice memory foam mattress for a cat.

Now my partner says he is going to evict Olive and block up her den. Methinks the wily vixen will outwit him. Place your bets now...

Monday, 22 December 2008

Bird Feeders

Now, I just don't get it. I put up one bird feeder, filled it with seeds and the bluetits and robins just couldn't get enough. In fact, one afternoon I saw a parakeet curled round it and hanging on for dear life as it picked tiny seeds out of the dispenser.

It was so successful that I went online and bought a bird feeding station, like a metal coatstand with hooks to hang feeders on. As the original bag of seed had disappeared so fast, I bought a new one together with some peanuts and filled three feeders.

And since then? The feeders are hanging there virtually untouched by anything except an enterprising wood pigeon who examined the feeder from the safety of a twig, then flew to the top of it, peered down at peanuts and seeds and worked out that if it stood on the handy feeding tray, it could just crane its neck high enough to poke its beak into the opening of the seed dispenser. More power to its feathers, I say.

As for the rest of the former customers, I say, 'What is it with you lot?' Do birds have a sense of taste? Could it be that they don't like the new seeds? (Though it says on the packet that they are for all wild birds: are you listening, parakeet? This doesn't include you.) Where am I going wrong? Or is it simply because the weather has warmed up and the birds aren't so desperate as they were last week when there was ice and sleet?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Foxes Galore!

Wednesday night is when the binbags go out round here. Driving back from Sainsburys around ten pm, we saw at least five foxes criss-crossing the road, their eyes glowing like hot coals in the headlights.

Last night, Olive and Kinky decided to play a game of chase under the van that is parked outside our house. In and out, round and round, jumping up on the tyres, having a whale of a time. Only trouble was, it was the middle of the night and their bickering and chattering woke me up. So did the security light that they kept setting off, which floods my bedroom with light. I hammered on the window but they were too immersed in their game to take any notice. Eye shade and earplugs for me tonight.

Monday, 15 December 2008

She's back!

Yesterday we were greeted with the happy sight of Olive sitting in her usual spot between the back of the pond and the cherry tree. She seemed very hungry and even after two honey sandwiches, several biscuits, some bacon rind and a frozen rabbit (don't ask) had been chucked out, she still came back for more. She probably had to drag the block of iced bunny somewhere to thaw out.

A most unusually coloured female blackbird has appeared in the garden. Its chest is the same shade as my hair, a sort of autumn leaf bronze. Oh, all right, ginger. It must be catching.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Olive's disappearance

For months now, the little fox has appeared regularly in the garden, especially at human mealtimes when she sits, head cocked to one side, gazing at us beseechingly. But her mother, the alpha vixen, started chasing her off and now she hasn't been seen for two days. I really miss her.

Last night, unable to sleep, I got up around 2am to heat up my hot water bottle. I stared out at the lawn and deck which were white with frost then suddenly I saw a narrow dark shadow. It didn't resemble a fox at all, yet it turned into one and there was Olive, making a run for the leftover stew, now frozen solid. She seemed very nervous as she grabbed a mouthful and fled, obviously wondering if she were about to be beaten up for trespassing on what once was, and maybe still is, her mother's territory. Mother meanwhile will be ready to mate again and produce next year's cubs. It was my hope that Olive might one day bring her cubs into the garden but I don't think there's any chance while her mother is still alive.

Mother is a magnificent creature with dark red fur which is almost a copper beech colour and a massive brush. But I still have a soft spot for her ginger daughter - maybe because I'm ginger too!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Garden Trio

Flad the cat isn't scared of foxes. In fact, he's quite curious, as you can see from the picture. In the foreground is Olive, who I now think is a young vixen as there are no signs of any 'family jewels'. Behind her is her littermate, Kinky, another, but shyer, vixen. Olive appears every lunchtime when I come into the kitchen. I think she lurks in the bushes watching for me. Now that the evenings are dark, I peer out of the steamed-up window and see her waiting patiently beneath the fruit trees, her eyes gleaming like emeralds when I shine the torch on her.

This week she has eaten five out of the box of six organic eggs which were destined for my stomach, not hers. She also had half of my fish pie from last night's dinner. Once the scraggy runt of the litter, not expected to survive the winter, I think she's now in with a good chance, even if I starve in the process!

We had a sprinkling of snow on Saturday night and in the morning I spotted these prints of a pigeon that had gone round in circles. Maybe it was a Saturday night drunk!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Fox 1, Cat 0

As if it wasn't enough being chased by a deer, today poor old Flad hurtled through the cat flap with the vixen, mother of this year's cubs, in hot pursuit. She halted in front of the cat flap and pondered for a moment, as if wondering whether or not to venture through. Luckily, she didn't and I hope she never does. She and her progeny cause enough trouble as it is. One of them was even impudent enough to crap in poor Flad's outdoor bed, a cardboard box filled with the paper out of the shredder. I stroked him and spoke soothingly to him whilst watching the vixen's brush, an unusual shade of copper beech auburn, disappear round the bushes. Flad's tail was so fluffed out, he looked like a black and white fox himself.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Beakstuffers Anonymous

They are lined up watching and waiting. As the crumbs are flying from my hand, before they have settled on the grass, they are in the air, black wings whirring. Occasionally grey wings beat them to it, but not usually. I have nicknamed them The Beakstuffers as I have never known crows that are so talented at scouring the lawn and cramming their beaks until not one crumb is left for any other feathered creature, not even the robin agitatedly bobbing along the back of the garden bench, waiting his turn.

This morning, a lone magpie zoomed in, snatched and morsel and fled before Crow Patrol could buzz him. At the same time, a fat, sleek wood pigeon, immune to the crows' taunts, plodded about, picking up what it could. That pigeon is the real winner because when my partner flaps his arms to scare the Beakstuffers away, the pigeon is the only one who takes no notice and simply carries on pecking and ambling.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Fox cub in autumn

Olive the fox cub (don't think it's Oliver as it always squats rather than lifting its leg) is older and getting its full brush. It is still just as curious, and just as keen on begging for food. As I ate my lunch today, it sat fixing me with a wistful gaze until I shared my ham with it. I threw out the white cat biscuits that Flad hates and just as it was eating them, its mother the vixen hurled herself at it bit her progeny on the back, barged it aside and finished the biscuits herself. So much for maternal love. But I suppose this is the time of year when cubs are expected to scatter and find their own foraging round, and our garden has been the vixen's for the past couple of years. I don't think Olive is going to give it up in a hurry, though. She has it far too easy here.

Flad the cat ignores it. In fact, at one moment today he was on the bench and the fox cub was underneath it.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Garden spiders

Although I hate getting my face in a web - not just because of the sensation, but because I am clumsily destroying such a wonderful work of skill and art - I have to say that garden spiders, in their soft, golden-brown, stripy glory, are handsome, industrious creatures. This one was stationed itself strategically near the pond, where it can catch midges and mosquitoes.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Deer v cat

Just saw a most amazing sight - a muntjac deer chasing poor old Flad, the cat, up the garden. Once Flad had dived into the hedge, the deer ran off down the garden and into the fields beyond. Wonder if it is a doe with kids who thought Flad was a threat?

Monday, 6 October 2008

Sudden invasion of Bluetits

There used to be tons of bluetits in the garden but this year we have hardly seen one - until now. Suddenly, they are everywhere, flitting between the trees so that it is hard to tell what is a whizzing bluetit and what is a whirling leaf blown on the wind. Wonder what has brought them back and, even more mysterious, where they have come from, and where they have been?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Birds of Prey

With great excitement, my partner pointed out the sparrowhawk flying across the garden, then back over the treetops. Shortly afterwards, a kestrel appeared, hovering in roughly the same place where we last saw the sparrowhawk. What could suddenly have attracted them to that particular spot? Could it be that some migrating birds had gathered there?

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Season of Mists...

This 'forest' view is in fact the tops of dwarf conifers in the garden. And the blue flower shows the last of summer giving way to autumn. I don't think the pears will ripen now. Keat's 'mellow fruitfulness' requires a lot more sunshine than we have had this year.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Hungry audience

I was preparing dinner the other night when the back of my neck started to prickle in that sixth sense way that tells you there is someone, or something, looking at you. In my case it was 'somethings' in the plural. Out beyond the patio doors there were Flad the resident cat, Oliver the greedy fox, a magpie, a crow, two pigeons and a squirrel, all staring hard and hopefully. All that came to hand was a stale scone. That eliminated one of the hopefus straight away - Flad. However, Oliver scarpered with it before the rest got a look-in.

The new fish are settling in well. We inherited four large ones from someone who was moving house. The big spotty one that I call Measles has spent the last few days resting up in the lily stems. My partner guessed she was about to spawn and this morning there was a shoal of teeny fry to add to the various youngsters in the pond. They shoal by size. There is one shoal of one-inch fry and another of two-inchers which already have a gold sheen when the sun hits them. A friend has already put in an order, having lost most of his to a heron. As 11 of ours came from him in the first place, it seems only right that their descendents should return to their watery ancestral home, which is a long, narrow pond in Langley!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Common Darter, Speckled Wood

This beautiful dragonfly (I think it's a Common Darter. If not, can someone correct me?) sat patiently on a piece of wood attached to the pond netting while I took its portrait. An hour later, a Speckled Wood butterfly chose the same perch on which to sun itself.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Birdless in Hillingdon

Maybe it's the time of the year - lots of fruit and seeds - but there have hardly been any birds in the garden apart from the regulars, the wood pigeons, Open Heart Surgery in particular (see early posts for the story of OHS). I was surprised he was still around. It must have been three years ago that I rescued him from the cat, the scars of which he still bears on his breast, but he still rules the lawn, big and bolshy. I did some research and discovered that wood pigeons can live for ten years, so perhaps he still has a few to go.

Apart from fleeting glimpses of a robin and a yellowhammer and the distant yelps of woodpeckers, bird life has been elusive. I wonder if it could be anything to do with the five foxes that regularly scour the lawn, in particular Oliver, who takes up a Sphinx-like position every afternoon, watching for activity in the kitchen. Our neighbour saw a fox grab a pigeon one day, so the birds are probably very wary. Talk about nature red in beak and claw!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Darling Starlings

Glad to report that starlings are doing well in Hillingdon. I saw a very big flock gathered on adjoining rooftops today. They took off and wheeled and whirled like silk streaming in the wind.

My partner has continued to wave his arms and shoo the little fox away, but Oliver keeps returning. Every afternoon at around four, when he knows humans will appear in the kitchen to feed the cat, he takes up a Sphinx-like position on the lawn, lying down facing the patio doors. When he spots us. he waggles his ears enquiringly and of course I can't resist chucking him a handful of cat biscuits. Maybe it's time I bought a sackful of dog biscuits instead. Don't want him to start meowing.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Sibling Rivalry

Poor little Oliver. He's had our garden all to himself for weeks now, but suddenly one of his bigger, stronger siblings, the long-tailed fox that I call Kinky, has found out where he is getting fed and wants to claim the territory for itself. Tonight, Oliver, who is limping on his front right leg, had just hunkered down with a time-expired burger, when Kinky beat him up and snatched it off him. Luckily, all we have to do it wave our arms and Kinky runs away, the rotten coward. Oliver, being more intelligent, looks us in the eye and stands his ground. He knows we're trying to protect him and as soon as Kinky has raced through the hedge into next door, he cocks his head on one side, adopts his most appealing look, and waits to see what we're going to throw out next. Tonight, it was the remains of my veggie pasta. He licked off the tomato sauce (made from home-grown tomatoes), then tackled the spaghetti as if he was suddenly discovering Italian blood. Talk about style and expertise. A pluck, a suck, and it vanished one strand at a time.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Red Admiral

Here's another photo which I have added to my butterfly pic collection. I really need a more expensive camera which takes sharper photos. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Oliver's brother

Here is an early evening photo of one of Oliver's siblings. This is the nearest to him in size and we call it Kinky, because it has a slight kink in its tail. It lacks Oliver's people skills. Whereas Oliver will spot us and come and sit near the patio doors looking appealing, Kinky will run away when he sees humans, which will probably mean that he will live a full foxy life-span whereas the too friendly Oliver... no, it doesn't bear thinking about. He'll be OK so long as he stays in this garden!

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Sounds in flight

When a bird flies past at close quarters, a word often springs into my mind to describe the sound of its wings. The fluffy purr of a sparrow's wings; the clap of a pigeon's (a flock flying over sound like an appreciative audience at a concert); the whirr of a wren. Though when a peregrine falcon flew right past my left ear to grab a bluetit from the bird feeder at my sister's house in Cumbria, I heard nothing as its swoop was completely silent. Even the poor bluetit didn't hear or see what was coming.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008


And the bird that woke me at 5 am THIS morning was a greenfinch, singing most beautifully, chirring and trilling away. But please, birds, try to sleep in a little tomorrow...

Monday, 28 July 2008


I couldn't work out what the piercing, unusual song was that was waking me at dawn. I could just make out the guilty bird, perched on a twig atop next door's graceful silver birch. Then yesterday a very odd looking bird was pecking at crumbs on the lawn. I grabbed the binoculars and noted the yellowish colouring and the fluffy, speckled breast. When I looked it up, it was, of course, a yellowhammer. I had never seen one before and was quite thrilled. This one holds its tail quite high and flicks it every so often like a wagtail would do. Is this a quirk of this individual bird, I wonder, or do they all do it? Anybody know?

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A swoop of swifts

Walking down my street in West London on Wednesday, my eye was caught by the sight of a couple of swifts zooming over the treetops. Then I saw that they were hurrying to join an enormous group that were darting, banking, wheeling and generally performing swiftian aerobatics. A swift count (sorry!) totalled forty or more. I had never seen so many in one place at a time.

I have often wondered whether the story of swifts sleeping on the wing is fact or myth. I Googled my question and found the answer on a wonderful website called where not only are the some stunning photos of a notoriously difficult bird to capture on film (I apologise for 'stealing' the photo earlier in this blog) but all one's questions on this beautiful, graceful bird are answered. Mr Edward Meyer and his enthusiastic fellow swift-lovers are willing to give talks on swifts to groups of bird lovers. Email him via the website for further info.

And do swifts sleep on the wing? You'll just have to read website, which tells all!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Plant Mystery Solved!

Thanks to Jacula, I have discovered that my mystery plant is Inula Magnifica, which grows
to 8ft tall and has lower leaves that can be as much as 3 feet long. If anyone wants seeds to grow a monster in their garden, let me know!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Ten foot high plant in flower: ID needed!

My on-line friend Jacula suggests that it is elfwort (Inula Helenium) but this grows to only 5 feet high and my plant is easily twice that. Also, I was wrong about the flowers growing in clusters. They grow singly, each one shooting up like a dandelion (see photo taken last year). Come on, plant lovers. Name this enormous beast! Remember, the leaves are 2 feet long by 8 ins broad, silvery on the underside and slightly rough to the touch on the topside. The tallest one in the garden right now is 8 feet high and still growing.

Hedgehog heaven

Our last resident hedgehog went to heaven by the route most hedgepigs take - being flattened on the road. (Q: Why did the hedgehog cross the road? A: To see his flat mate.) Since then, the slugs have proliferated so that I didn't dare walk out on the deck barefoot at night for fear of feeling that hideous sensation of squishing slime beneath my sole. Slugs were slithering up the patio doors; they were leapfrogging the copper tape on my flowerpots to get to the tasty violas and petunias. They were even taking hazardous trips across the pond netting and the corpses of those that didn't make it float like bloated, decaying sea cucumbers and have to be fished out before they pollute the water.

Last night at 12.45am (or rather, this morning), I decided I was chilly and in need of comfort so I got up to make myself a hot water bottle. In the dark. Yes, I risked pouring boiling water into the neck of the HWB in darkness, because I knew if I switched on the light, it would wake me up. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I made out a dark shape next to the curry container I had put out for the foxes. I blinked. It moved. I blinked again. It couldn't be... could it?

I groped around for the torch, one of those big halogen spotlight ones, and caught in the beam was the biggest fattest hedgehog I have ever seen, merrily munching slugs. Hooray! I hope it and its family will continue to denude the garden of every slithery citizen. And may this well-stocked sluggery be the only heaven this hedgepig inhabits for a very long time.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Can you identify this plant?

First there were two, now there are nine. They grow to ten feet high or more, the leaves are up to two feet long and a foot broad and when it flowers, they are bright yellow and look like small dahlias, in clusters. I thought it may be a kind of exotic sunflower but I have been unable to find it on any website. I shall post a photo of the flowers in a few weeks' time.

Oliver Twist

The littlest cub has adopted us. We have named it Oliver, as in Twist, as it always comes back for more. It appears first thing in the morning looking hopeful and steals the birds' bread - unless the crow gets there first. It's terrified of the crow and scarpers when it appears. It's also a bit nervous of the pigeons. Obviously, the fact that pigeon would make a jolly good meal hasn't yet occurred to it. I have a feeling it may be a little vixen, in which case we'll have to change its name to Olivia.

Comma and common hawker

It hasn't been a good year for insect life so far, especially as I have seen no stag beetles. That's a great shame. I can only hope that, as they take seven years to mature from egg into beetle, there may be an increase in some future year.

A couple of days ago I was lucky enough to spot this comma butterfly taking the sun in the garden. Today, a common hawker dragonfly strafed my head then settled on the waterlilies to lay her eggs. At least one a year hatches out of the pond and as they usually return to where they were born in order to lay, I should think this one is 'home grown'.

Monday, 30 June 2008

The seaside comes to town!

You don't expect to see a huge herring gull in suburban back garden, but this one came down to help itself to some rather nasty burgers that we tossed out for the foxes, rather than eat them ourselves, as they were so greasy. The gull flew off with a whole one in its beak. Although this is a large garden, there are a lot of bushes and it only just found enough clear space to take off.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Decline of the Stag Beetle

I have been in Hillingdon for the last ten springs and this is the first time I have seen no stag beetles at all. I think the problem is the succession of wet springs. The mating season for the staggies is the end of May, beginning of June, but night after night was rainy, blowy or cold, the very weather stag beetles hate. Now we have had a few barmy nights in late June, but I fear it is too late. The ones that hatched have failed to mate and will have died by now. The population has been in decline round here for a decade. Perhaps they have now died out altogether in this area.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Even more foxes

We have seen four foxes now. The vixen looks in poor shape, with half her coat lost to mange, s condition the cubs may well catch off her. The tiniest cub (see photo) appears to be blind in one eye. It's getting a little too tame and if we are not careful, it will soon be inside the kitchen. Don't think the cat would take kindly to that.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Young 'uns

The blackbird pair proudly introduced one youngster, his plumage still not quite mature, with a reddish chest and a black tail that looks too large for him. The starling families make me laugh as their young have beaks that look too heavy for them and I keep expecting them to tip over and get their beaks stuck in the lawn. This morning I spied a young great spotted woodpecker in next door's lilac tree. Like the starling teenagers, it has yet to grow into its beak!

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Magpie challenges fox

The largest of the three fox cubs (perhaps one from a different litter as our familiar vixen has been spotted with two smaller cubs) is fending for himself, though he looks no more than three months old. This evening I put out a slice of bread with some baked beans on it. The cub took the bread, shook the beans onto the grass and ate them. He then tore off a strip of bread and ate that. Finally, he seized the rest of the bread in his jaws and hunkered down to eat it. A magpie swooped down and made several rushes towards the fox, head down, wings swept back, chittering loudly. One last dart and the bold bird actually tore a piece of bread from the fox's mouth and flew off with it. Talk about cheek!

Monday, 9 June 2008


The pond is alive with red ones and electric blue ones. If you look at the leaf in the top right of the photo of the blue one, you'll see the shed skin of a large brown dragonfly, possibly a hawker (I missed the hatching) that emerged earlier today.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Stag Beetles

Any time now, if the warmer weather holds, we should see if there are any stag beetles still around in the area. From a whopping 30 or so ten years back, there has been a dramatic decline. Last year we only saw about 9 beetles and I think the wet spring weather of the last few years has been largely to blame, though next door's four highly active and omniverous Bengal cats put paid to a few, unfortunately. They also murdered several frogs and this year, for the first time, there were no pairs mating in the pond.

The birds are doing well, though. There are three nests in the garden, blackbirds, robins and wrens. When the cat is out, I do my best to keep watch, ready to scare off any feathered creature on the lawn if I see a tail twitching in the shrubbery. Unfortunately, he hasn't got the skill to catch a magpie, the chattering of which outside the bedroom window is the bane of my life at present!

The vixen has at least two cubs, the boldest of which has been waddling onto the lawn all by himself. He is a curious little soul, in all senses of the word. The other day he sat beneath the hedge watching me, his head cocked on one side. I have ginger hair. Did he think I was a two-legged fox?

Thursday, 29 May 2008


Those early arrivals were obviously just passing through and since then, with the unsettled weather, I haven't seen one more swift. I did, however, see a beautiful goldfinch on a hedge near Hillingdon tube station yesterday. I was just focusing my camera phone when someone walked past and scared it off. Its brilliant gold wings and scarlet head were a joy to behold.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Slug wars

My copper tape has arrived at last, but not before the loss of two tomato plants, three
fuschia seedlings and two pots of violas. Mind you, the loss of some of the violas was probably
my fault, in that I was a bit heavy handed with the salt. Apparently, slugs don't like copper as it reacts with their slime and gives them electric shocks. That will put slug psychiatrists out of business!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Fox cub

A bedraggled-looking vixen has been scurrying from the cover of the bushes to grab anything we throw out onto the lawn. On Monday night I noticed her teats were swollen and she was obviously feeding a family. Shortly after this observation, a tiny cub tottered out from the bushes and stood in the middle of the garden, gazing curiously at us through the patio doors. It was too dark to take a photo, which makes me think about acquiring an infra red camera to capture nocturnal visitors. Maybe the odd burglar, too!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Swift arrival

The swifts are back! For the last few days, I have kept looking up into the sky and listening out for that familiar, eardrum-piercing tzee-tzee-tzee, but nothing. Then this afternoon, to my great joy, I saw the first three or four. Sibillant swifts, scissoring the sky with their swoops and darts, zizzing like aerial crickets. They are the true first sign of summer.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Peacock and Small Blue butterflies

I was thrilled to see one peacock butterfly warming its wings on the deck, and another rather battered specimen on the appleblossom at the bottom of the garden (the wilderness behind the workshop). Then, correct me if I am wrong, but I think the blue butterfly that landed on the grass is a Small Blue.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Hedge sparrows anonymous

A hedge sparrow and a robin were feeding side by side on crumbs on the lawn this morning. The hedge sparrow was also enjoying some sesame seeds I had thrown out. Later, it was joined by its mate and I think they may be nesting in some thick creeper that tangles its way up a tree. The hedgies have no distinguishing features apart from their pleasantly patterned plumage but the robin is distinguishable by a white spot beneath the red on its breast. Sadly, the cat caught and killed a wren the other day. I ignored him for the rest of the day and wouldn't give him lap-room but I fear he is too dim to know he had done wrong - wrong, that is, by human standards. By feline standards, he had brought home the bacon - or rather, the bird.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Orange Tip Butterfly

Saw an orange tip butterfly in the garden this afternoon, and a small pale blue one that I think was a holly blue. That makes four species so far this year, with the peacock and the cabbage white.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008


Saw the first cabbage white in the garden at the weekend and the first peacock butterfly today. Perhaps Spring really is on the way at last. Yesterday we were also graced with the presence of a pair of green woodpeckers in the garden. I love them because they eat my unfavourite things, ants, which have already found a way into the kitchen and are milling around the cat's food area, carrying off scraps of Whiskas. Wish I could train HIM to eat ants!

Monday, 14 April 2008

Soaking up the Spring sun

After a cheeky peep at us through the slats of the bench, this young, fearless fox plonked himself (or herself?) down for a sunbathing session and stayed for two hours. Unbelievable! The patio door was open and the creature ignored the sounds of tea-making and clattering plates, and even human voices. The thing that spooked it in the end was a neighbour slamming his garage door. To the fox, it probably sounded like a gunshot! It darted off and shortly afterwards, the sky darkened and heavy rain and hail showers began. Perhaps the fox could sense the approaching weather and scarpered to its earth before it got wet.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Goldfish, cold fish

I feel very sorry for pond fish in weather as cold as this. They cluster at the bottom of the pond and every so often Sandra, the athletic one with the blonde head, wiggles her tail, powers herself up and takes a leap out of the pond, to splash back into the water and glide down to the bottom again. I would love to know if she does it because she's spied a tiny fly (unlikely in this weather), or to keep warm. Or maybe she just enjoys showing off. I've heard that in cold weather, a pond fish's metabolism slows down and they become torpid. Nobody told Sandra that. That's her, bottom centre of the photo.

A tatty little fox came in this morning to drink from the icy pond. It saw me and scarpered, which was a shame, because shortly afterwards, I chucked out a piece of stale cake. The crows got to it first. Survival of the fittest - and fastest.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Snow birds

Nothing gets wasted in our house, especially in cold weather like this. Today, wood pigeons, crows, robins, blackbirds, magpies and starlings enjoyed a feast of leftover stew (note: magpies love potatoes, especially when coated with gravy), blueberries slightly past their use-by date (the blackbirds' favourite), bread (the pigeons prefer the seeded variety) and the remnants of a pudding made from squashed hot cross buns, marmalade and custard (the robin's favourite). A fox appeared, drank from the pond, then ignored the food and trotted off. Perhaps it had found better pickings elsewhere. Or maybe it was waiting to pounce on one of those guzzling birds.

Friday, 14 March 2008

First butterfly

I have just seen a peacock butterfly in the garden. It's the first this year. I have also seen a few early wasps around, both queens and smaller workers. I hope this doesn't presage a surge in the wasp population. It's been a warm winter, after all, and we have been getting the odd one in the house all through the winter season.

The Lone Hornet put in a appearance today as well. His territory is the neglected back end of the garden and the side path, which he strafes for small flies. I have set off at a hell of a lick before now, pursued by LH. Actually, he isn't so lone any more, as last summer we saw him mating by the pond. Hope this doesn't mean another population surge to live in dread of!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Ladybird tragedy

Today I saw the first ladybird of the year, a classic red one with 9 spots on each wing. Sadly, it was lying on the wooden stairs, squashed by a large human foot. But it is surely a sign that the weather is warming up.

The birds are nest-building. I had my hair cut and saved the pieces which I put out on the grass. They were soon taken away for nest-lining purposes. Magpies are flying around with long twigs in their beaks. Maybe they are training to be tightrope walkers as the twigs look far too long to be part of a nest.

The sweet little nest in the garden shed was a home to wrens the year before last and bluetits last year. It is built up near the roof where there is a gap just big enough for a small bird to pop in and out of. This year I'm rather hoping it may be home to a robin family.

It's so funny seeing the robins squabbling for territory on the lawn. We have nicknamed them Right-Hand Robin and Left-Hand Robin as they come from opposite sides, meet in the middle, have a tremendous fight then fly back to where they came from. The middle ground they are fighting over is owned by a rather fierce looking blackbird who patrols it several times a day, enjoying the time-expired M&S blueberries which I am chucking out for him. Lucky bird!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Frog Log

The first full springtime I spent in Hillingdon was in 1998. Towards the end of February, on a warm day, I was sitting eating breakfast in the kitchen/diner when I became aware of a strange sound. It was as if someone was cranking a wooden spindle in a wooden shaft: creak, creak, very rhythmic. Knowing it was many years since donkeys were harnessed to machinery and forced to walk round in circles all day, and knowing there was no village well or grain mill in the back garden, I decided it must be the grating call of some unusual bird.

I went to the window. Nothing. I opened the patio doors and the sound increased twenty-fold, accompanied by splashing sounds as many small bodies dived for cover beneath the surface of the pond. Frogs. Dozens of frogs. Twosomes, threesomes... I counted 42 in all, and the next day the surface of the pond was festooned with frogspawn. I enjoyed watching the tadpoles hatch into froglets, though I assume the fish ate a good deal of them.

The next year there were fewer pairs, and the following year even less. Last year, there were only two pairs and this year, sadly, none at all. Next door's voracious Bengal cats that chase and kill anything that moves were responsible for some deaths, but I fear ranavirus, or 'red leg', is probably to blame for the decline. I would be interested to hear if anyone else has noticed a similar local decline.

The end of May will see the stag beetle mating time. Once again, ten years ago the air was full of them, bumbling around, flying into the security light and into my hair. Once more, there has been a sharp decline from 50 or more beetles down to around 10 last year. I log my sightings and send them to organisations who are monitoring the UK stag beetle population which also appears to be in decline. Frogs, sparrows, thrushes, blue tits, stag beetles are all becoming rarer, yet parakeets and birds of prey are thriving. Nature's swings and roundabouts!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

The tale of Open Heart Surgery

OHS is a very fat woodpigeon. Last year, he was nearly a late woodpigeon. I was hard at work at my computer upstairs when I heard thumping sounds from down below. I knew my partner was out so, fearing burglars, I crept downstairs to be confronted by a living room full of blood and feathers. A bloodstained cat was staring at me, while a blood-dripping pigeon was perched on the back of the sofa, watching morning telly. The thumps were the sounds of said pigeon having been dragged through the catflap in the jaws of Flad the Impaler (Flad, short for Flathead, the cat's congenital deformity that probably accounts for its lack of brainpower).

The first thing I did was shoo the cat into the kitchen and close the doors. I didn't know which of the two creatures was more injured. I thought Flad might have been gored by the pigeon's beak. As it turned out, it was pigeon blood that stained his white chest.

The poor pigeon was in a bad way. Its chest was ripped open and I didn't think it would survive. I crept quietly out, to give it some calm moments, and rang my partner, who laughed uproariously when I told him to drop the kitchen-fitting work he was doing and come home immediately because the place was like a slaughterhouse and there was a dismembered pigeon watching To Buy or Not to Buy.

He threw a towel over the pigeon and gently carried it out, releasing it at the bottom of the garden while I shouted at the cat. I swept up the feathers, he mopped up the blood and we laid bets on the pigeon's survival.

Well, survive it did, complete with a scar down its chest that looked as if it had had a heart transplant, hence its name, Open Heart Surgery. Perhaps it, like the cat, had sustained brain damage because it became ridiculously tame, hopping up onto the deck even Flad was lying there dozing. OHS has now become King of the Garden, top pigeon, apart from a few weeks when a younger, sleeker one with an oddly curved beak and a ruddy chest bossed OHS around. The usurper has now been seen off and OHS and his docile mate are around every day, OHS getting fatter all the time. He waddles now. I fear he will soon get so obese that he will be unable to fly. Then it will be time for pigeon pie and I may even give Flad a tasty reminder. No, not really. OHS is too special to cook. When his time comes and he plummets from his perch in the oak tree like a feathered football, he will get a burial at the bottom of the garden, next to Flad's last victim, the thrush. I shall play The Last (Pigeon) Post on my old school recorder and place him in the earth to the tune of Mouldy Old Dough by Lieutenant Pigeon, of course.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Heron on the roof

My partner woke at 1.30 am on Thursday night hearing feet scrabbling on the roof. He sleeps in the loft room so he flung open the Velux and switched on the torch. He expected to see a rat, but instead it was a heron, its feet scrabbling for purchase on the slippery tiles.

Next morning he discovered that he no longer had 12 fish in his pond, but only 11. Fortunately my favourite, Sandra, a very athletic goldfish with a blonde head who wiggles rapidly to the surface and makes an Olympic leap several times a day, was still there. But the traumatised fish have spend the last two days huddled together in a tight group, perhaps thinking there is safety in numbers.

Lulled into a sense of false security, the netting had been taken off the pond but now it's securely back in place. Just what was a heron doing fishing by night? They are not nocturnal birds. Perhaps it was taking advantage of the bright moonlight. Strangely enough, the missing fish was the only completely white one so perhaps that made it easier to see.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Lonely Thrush

Today this thrush spend two solid hours in the garden, occasionally giving a little run and pecking, but mostly just standing looking lost. At first I thought it might be injured but when, eventually, my partner went out and tried to scare it off for fear our cat woke up and went out, it flew up into a tree. Its behaviour was certainly most unusual and I can't help feeling that this is the mate of the one the cat killed last month (see my other blog, for the full story) and that it (I think it is a female) was looking, listening, waiting and hoping. All in vain. I can only hope that it does find another mate, though as we know there are fewer and fewer song thrushes around these days. In the meantime, it really does look terribly sad.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Wasp on the carpet

I was just walking towards the stairs carrying far too much as usual - glasses case, mug of coffee, sundry items of junk mail - when I saw a wasp on the carpet. It had obviously come from upstairs, where the occasional one has terrorised me on my typing chair for the last couple of months. (I've looked in every cupboard and can't find a nest. )It was a bit slow and groggy so I put down my burdens and went for the glass-and-postcard method. It worked well and the wasp was soon trapped in the glass.

I resisted the temptation to put my eye to the tumbler for an eyeball to eyeball encounter, just in case I moved the postcard and the beast escaped, in vengeful mood. Going to A&E with a wasp-sting in the eye isn't my idea of an ideal Tuesday.

The patio door was already open - I'd planned this wasp-nap in advance, in minute detail. Out I went and was just about to whisk the card from under the glass like a magician's cloth when out of nowhere an enormous bumblebee appeared and made straight for me. My scream must have been audible at Heathrow, three miles away. When I looked at the glass, the wasp was gone. Where, I do not know. Hope it's not up my sweatshirt.

Buzzard Blitzkrieg

At around eight this morning, the birds suddenly took off. The sky was wheeling and whirring with wings belonging to starlings, pigeons, crows and even parakeets. Then, once they had all buried themselves in the branches, I saw it, majestically wheeling high above the garden and over the fields that border Charville Lane.

Buzzards prefer eating carrion. They don't go into a stoop and plummet from the sky, or make an air strike into the garden from a high tree. They soar and spy. The garden birds have far more to fear from the sparrowhawk, but the fear of a large shadow looming above them is enough to send them into a flap. They must have the ability to differentiate between the shape and, perhaps, the aerial gait, of one large bird and another, for they don't fly for cover when the heron glides over. Instead, the larger birds such as crows, mob it and try to drive the poor, innocent fish eater away.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Wren poem

Here is a poem I wrote for my mother's birthday about fifteen years ago.


She makes her home in hollow, hidden places
Away from fox's scent and human sight.
A tiny hole in ivy will provide
A front door fringed with fern and brushed by briar.
A dark and twiggy space becomes her window,
A dappled latticework of day and night
Through which the spider parachutes for prey;
A bush her garden, and for jewels she has
The diamante necklace of the rain.
Like Morse code, her erratic, darting flight
Is worked in dots and dashes. Brash and bright
Her singing, while her quick, sharp, golden beak
Stabs the slow moth with music in the dusty light.

Bird Threesomes!

The sparrowhawk didn't catch the blackbird. There are two males and one female in the garden. I believe the darker, sleeker-looking male is the pair's fledgling from last year, as they make no attempt to drive it away. Similarly, a pair of crows are always in the garden in a threesome with one of the young they raised last year. Is this a new trend in bird behaviour?

Monday, 28 January 2008

Squirrel heist

Either the blackbird escaped or it was another male bird who was pecking at the cherry I put out this morning. I kept wanting to shout, "Look behind you!" in case the sparrowhawk was keeping watch, but instead, the blackbird had another enemy to contend with. A grey squirrel that lolloped across the lawn and mugged the blackbird for the fruit, then buried it in the lawn. I don't know who was the more surprised, the blackbird or me.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Sparrowhawk attack

It should be renamed the blackbirdhawk. I had thrown out a cherry this morning and the blackbird was happily enjoying it when suddenly, the hawk hurtled down like an arrow and went for the blackbird. In the confusion, all I saw was a flurry of barred wings and speckled brown feathers, then the hawk was off, soaring over nextdoor's garden. I don't know if it got the blackbird or not. I certainly haven't see it since. I had always understood that a sparrowhawk went for small birds, like, um, sparrows. Perhaps, with the depletion of the sparrow population, sparrowhawks have had to widen their menu. Though a fully grown male blackbird is, surely, a bit of an optimistic target.

I have 'borrowed' the photo of the sparrowhawk from the RSPB's website ( where you can actually hear a recording of the cry of the sparrowhawk and see a short video clip. Well worth a visit.

Monday, 21 January 2008


I have never seen so many starlings as I did yesterday, apart from on nature programmes. They came swirling in and settled in clusters on all the surrounding trees. Hundreds of them, so that, in the distance, the trees looked as if they were heavily laden with fruit. And the noise! The air was loud with piercing whistles. It's a wonder they don't deafen themselves.

This got me to thinking about starlings and I realised that I had never seen a starling's nest. As they are in such numbers, if they built nests, you'd see them everywhere, on every tree. There would be no room for blackbirds and even magpies would be crowded out.

I went onto the RSPB website and discovered that starlings build their nests in holes in trees and buildings. They join the flock in order to feed - maybe as much as 20 miles away from their roosts - then, at dusk, they all flock together again (safety in numbers, I suppose, to protect them from birds of prey) and go back to their nests. I love to see them rise like swirling smoke in the air, performing their aerial ballets. It's an awesome sight.

Glimpsed a sparrowhawk a few days ago. It often perches atop a tall birch tree a few gardens
away, using it as a lookout post. It was because of the sparrowhawk that we had to take down our bird table. A few days after it was erected, when there were a few sparrows on it, the hawk came hurtling across the garden. It failed to catch one, but the danger was obvious so, to protect the sparrows of Hillingdon, we dismantled it. Shame!