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Lockdown Nature Notes

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During the long months of the initial lockdown in 2020 in the U.K., I spent time making these notes of the life in my garden.

There is a good reason why Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne remains a classic. It has been described as the journal of Adam in paradise. White, a clergyman, was wonderfully attentive to the small locale of Selborne and his journaling is full of detail about what he discovered. For example he says of a tortoise that, “I was much taken with its sagacity in discerning those that do it kind offices; for, as soon as the good old lady comes in sight who has waited on it for more than thirty years, it hobbles towards its benefactress with awkward alacrity; but remains inattentive to strangers.” Thames and Hudson have produced a delightful, illustrated version of this classic. It is a great book to browse at this time. Friends of ours in South Africa have a similar tortoise called Toby who knows those who feed him.

Mr and Mrs Blackbird

The pandemic has kept many of us at home and thus given us time to be attentive to our places. I love gardening and my small English garden has been a joy to cultivate. When I moved to my cottage under two years ago I noticed that there was a blackbird (male) who regarded my garden as his! As throughout the UK (and South Africa) starlings visit my birdfeeders in abundance and when he can, he chases them away. This year (2020) I noticed that a female blackbird was also a regular visitor in my garden (the female is brown rather than black). Then I discovered that they were a pair and that on an almost daily basis their two fluffy chicks spent the days quietly in the borders of my garden with regular feedings by one or other of the parents. Unlike the starling chicks, these baby blackbirds make a quiet cheep, and bounce around after their parents. It is a privilege for my garden to be a safe place for the chicks as they grow and develop. I whistle regularly to the blackbirds and the chicks show very little fear of me. However, they do not enjoy it when I water the garden and accidently shower them too. The mother, however, quite enjoys a shower amidst these very hot days. 

Today (4 June 2020) it is cooler after several scorching days. There is a bare patch outside the door of my solarium and so I laid fresh soil and planted grass seed. The grass seed came in a box which has a flap underneath of which are holes so that you can shake the seed onto the soil directly from the box. Whereas most birds fly away when I go out into the garden, to say nothing of the noise from the box, the male blackbird flew right down to see what I was up to. He came to within about a metre of me and stayed for a while observing. Astonishing!

Gourmet Meals

In the last week – today is Wednesday 10 June – the weather has changed from very hot to rainy and cold. When I do not use all my bread it goes into the garden for the birds. They seem to love it once it becomes soggy from the rain rather than being dry and hard. A feast. The rain also brings worms to the surface and it appears that a gourmet meal is soggy bread and fresh worms (delicious!). 

I have also been monitoring the baby blackbirds. I managed to get a few photographs of them as they have become more adventurous. 

For some 2 weeks now I had not seen the baby blackbirds. However, there is an identifiable noise the parents make when calling the young and as the parents – who are constantly in my garden – continued to make that noise I assumed the babies were around.

Then this week (2 July) they have been back in my garden every day. Indeed, when I drove home at lunch time one of the babies had found its way to the front of my property and took refuge in my entranceway. Despite repeated beckoning from the mother, it remained in place! I managed to get some decent photos of the mother and the babies. 

Recently I installed a solo powered water feature in my garden. You would think the birds would be all over it, but it takes them time to adjust to anything new. I thought for a week or so that I alone would enjoy the sound of running water whenever the sun is shining. However, they love to bath, and some have now discovered the joy of a three-tiered bath with running water. 

11 July 2020

When I am in South Africa I love to garden on our acre of flat and fertile ground. For several years I planted, from seed, huge patches of Livingstone Daisies, a kind of succulent. This year I started them in pots and then transplanted them into the ground. They make for an incredible show and all over my garden they are starting to flower, in a range of dazzling colours. 

After several very wet days the sun came out today. A lovely day to spend in garden shops, a huge nursery, and in the garden. The blackbirds are a regular feature with the babies growing steadily and much more confident in flying around, although still being fed by their attentive parents. 

I have been waiting for sun to bring my Livingstone daisies out in full array, and they did not disappoint. I checked on their place of origin and was not surprised to learn that Cleretum bellidiforme, commonly called Livingstone daisy, Bokbaaivygie, or Buck Bay vygie, is a species in the family Aizoaceae, native to the Cape Peninsula in South Africa.

15 July 2020 

The blackbird family are now a daily feature in my garden. The babies are growing, becoming far more confident, and starting to fly around. It is lovely to see how the parents still care for them and continue to feed them. It made me wonder if and how this strong bond continues once they become adults. Today the father and the two chicks were often out and about in my garden. I continue to whistle to them, and they show remarkably little fear of me. At one point today when I was walking around my small garden to see how the plants were doing I surprised myself by encounters with both of them at different spots. Getting good photos of them is not easy, but I manged to get one of one of the chicks. 

14 August 2020 

For several weeks I have seen little of the blackbirds. My hope is that the babies are now enjoying the larger world as fully grown birds. We have had some very hot days recently and the bird baths are being enjoyed. Large pigeons come regularly to feed, and I spotted two alongside each other in one of my birdbaths just lazing in the water. Every now and again they would flap their wings as birds normally do, but generally they just enjoyed the cool water. 

I read that butterflies are a sign of environmental health and it is lovely to see the number of butterflies almost constantly in my garden. They are not the easiest to photograph but I managed to get photos of the two main types I see regularly. 

It is interesting to see which plants they gravitate towards. They are particularly attracted to the purple flower above.

I love pots and have been looking out for a strawberry pot which I finally found at a garden centre near Cambridge.

I have one apple tree in my garden and each year it bears in abundance. Now is the time when I can start eating directly from the tree. 

29 August 2020

Recently we have been having a lot of rain, now with quite cold weather. The petunias and Livingstone daisies prefer the sun and are now steadily declining. However, my garden remains full of colour. 

I have a pond in the middle of my small garden and the water lilies continue to flower. Once while I was clearing around the pond I was surprised by a gentle frog that hopped away. Amidst the intensive use of chemicals in agribusiness and the destruction of hedgerows, the suburban garden like mine plays an important role for birdlife, much of which is in decline in the UK. On a rainy, cold day this pigeon sat for a long time on my fence, quite at ease.

At the entrance to my small house I had two plastic hanging baskets with vibrant petunias. As they have declined I replaced them with metal hanging baskets. It is surprising how much better this looks, and it is, of course, more sustainable. You get some lovely anti-rust metallic paints that I use on any metal in the garden, and with time I will paint these too so that they last. 

19 October 2020

Birdlife has slowed down with the onset of autumn. However they continue to come, and my garden has had some unusual guests. A large, young bird of prey put in an appearance, but I was unable to get a photograph of it. A stream of sparrows, which I love, hover between the apple tree and the bespoke feeder. 

This bright coloured chap pitches up from time to time.
And then surprisingly this fellow arrived. Squirrels are not uncommon in the UK, but this is the first one I have seen in my garden.
Doves are regular visitors and gently wait their turn. 

13 February 2021 – Out of Africa 

Gardens remain alive during the cold months of winter. My bird feeding has had to cease for a good while once a large group of pigeons made my roof their mid-morning stop, which was understandably not to my neighbour’s liking. 

As many of you will know I grew up in South Africa and our family home in KwaZulu Natal is set on nearly one acre of flat, fertile land, ideal for growing produce were it not for the troops of monkeys who regularly pass through. They can destroy a crop in minutes. 

It is summer in South Africa, and amidst the pandemic there we have some new guests appearing. Several wild duck come regularly and then this long-legged fellow has pitched up. I include all three photos to give you an indication of the front area of the property, as well as just how tame this bird is.