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.