Gardening leave

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Red Kite 15  Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Red Kite 15 Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I don’t get out much these days – I spend much of the day sitting at a computer and writing.  I’m not complaining – it’s what I want to do, but I am a bit deskbound.

The other day I heard a bird call come through the window that was closed to keep the heat out.  I knew immediately that it was a red kite – and I moved to another room, to another window, to get a glimpse of the long-tailed, red-tailed, fork-tailed beauty drift by.  A common sight these days – and I suspect that if I spent an hour in the garden every day I would usually see a kite or two.

Hasn’t it been hot? I love it.

I have been playing lots of US music on Spotify and Springsteen’s ‘Girls in their summer clothes’ seems appropriate.

Did you have an amazing thunderstorm on Monday night?  I don’t think I have ever known such loud thunder.  Our electricity went off for a while and there were car alarms sounding all down the street – didn’t keep me awake though.

On Wednesday I put out the washing and did the Big Butterfly Count.  I was going to do it at the weekend but then it was cloudy; and then I was going to do it on Monday but it rained quite a lot; and then I was going to do it on Tuesday but I was out (you see – I lied,  I do get out a bit); so I did it on Wednesday.  And I saw some small whites, some large whites, a ringlet and a meadow brown.  Not bad I thought (and I hung out the washing).  I did notice though, that the Big Butterfly Count is like the Big Garden Birdwatch – next door always seems to have more than I do.  Why don’t you do it too?

Over lunch one day I saw at least half a dozen buzzards high in the sky, and at least a couple of red kites.  I wonder how long I would have to stare at the sky before one of them was an osprey or a honey buzzard – maybe I’ll do that some time.

But it has been the evening when most of my sitting in the garden has been done.

On one evening I watched 10 Chinese lanterns, or fire-bombs as they should be called, drifting beautifully across the evening sky.  Very attractive, but then so, I’ve always thought, is the spread of fire across a pavement caused by a Molotov cocktail.  I would ban them (as I’ve said before on this blog) but I’m just an old socialist with Stalinist tendencies.  These days we are supposed to think that we should trust people (except foreigners, of course) and the State shouldn’t interfere.  If we ‘all’ vote Tory again then they’ll be disbanding the laws banning murder and saying that very few people are murderers and the number of people murdered is very small and so it isn’t an appropriate area for State intervention.  Let’s get back to the garden…

There have definitely been more swifts around this year.  One evening there was a group of about 35 of them very high, and screaming.  They’ll be off soon but it’s been good to share these dog days with them.

Pipistrelle bats have been flying around the house every evening, and having the bat detector next to the open bottle of Rioja seems to work well.  I did my PhD on pipistrelle bats and it’s always lovely to hear the ‘pitter patter’ of their sounds rendered audible by the bat detector and an occasional feeding ‘buzz’ as they home in on an insect.

A toad was sitting as if he owned the place one evening.  He doesn’t – I do.

It’s quite a while since I saw a hedgehog in the garden.  I’ve never seen a fox here.

We used to have house sparrows nesting under the eaves and copulating on the fence – I miss them.

That’s my garden over the last few days.  How about yours?  I feel I am giving nature a little bit of a home.




37 Replies to “Gardening leave”

  1. I envy you the Red Kite, or indeed any raptor. In North Yorks anything that vaguely resembles a raptor is blasted from the skies in short order. You have to go somewhere else to see such beautiful birds.
    Swifts we have a plenty though, and I never tire of watching them sweep across our skies like squadrons of little fighter planes. No hedgehogs though. I once kidnapped one from the road outside our house and moved it to the back garden in the hope that it would feast on the slugs and snails that decimate our hostas, but alas it was gone the next morning

    1. Richmondbirder – welcome and thank you. Yes, the kites and buzzards above the garden are a sign of progress. They would have been almost unthinkable when we moved here in 1987. I haven’t seen a hobby from the garden this year though – that is unusual as I would have expected at least one on a sunny evening.

  2. We have been fortunate to spend the last week or so in our French garden. The weather has been very hot but the wildlife spectacular. Birds are normally only active at each end of the day but Cirl Buntings, Serins, Goldfinches and Sardinian Warblers regularly visit the multiple drinking facilities I offer. We have seen a few family groups of Golden Orioles and the odd Hoopoe and our local Short-toed Eagles pass over daily. This last few days there have been lots of Montagu’s Harrier sightings as the local pairs bring their fledged young to hunt. The great joy though has been the great flights of Swifts every evening. Hundreds fly overhead and their constant screaming reminds me of why they were once know as Devil Birds.

    If my garden was in the UK it would be an SSSI for butterflies. Well over 40 species recorded so far. This week Clouded Yellows, Great Banded Graylings, Cleopatras, Spanish Gatekeepers and Scarce Swallowtails have been the higlight. Cicadas keep up their chorus and moths galore surround our outside lights. One evening a Stripeless Tree Frog paid us a visit.

    This enormous diversity of wildlife in a French garden shows just how much we have lost in the UK.

      1. This depressing comparison (between our still declining faunal paucity and the greater diversity commonplace in mainland Europe) reminds me of the recent article by George Monbiot ( in which he asks: “Why are you protecting the wretched scrapings of life that remain here, rather than reintroducing the species which would once have lived here?” The answer of course is that British landowners cannot possibly countenance such reintroductions. If British attitudes were replicated across the world there wouldn’t be a terrestrial predator left bigger than a badger anywhere, provided of course it wasn’t suspected of harbouring bTB. Why should poor Indian or African farmers be asked to live alongside lions, tigers or elephants when Scottish crofters get upset about a bird? A bird! In England, where we’ve successfully rid ourselves of the big nasty birds already, landowners now focus their efforts on exterminating foxes, stoats, smaller raptors and corvids, as even what we’re left with continues to be “controlled”. This week hen harriers faced a call for an “open season” from an Irish councillor ( The reality is that these people will only be happy when ALL wildlife is gone (except some nice pheasants or grouse to shoot at). Once we realise this it is clear that listening to them is pointless. Instead they simply have to be told that their desire for a faunal scorched earth is unacceptable to us (the people who subsidise them) and if they persist they must be prosecuted and be denied the revenues the public provides them with. This is so clearly the right thing that I am sure our politicians will never enact it. I’m going to go and count butterflies and be tremendously grateful if I see a single small tortoiseshell.

        1. Hugh – geat comment, thank you. Good luck with the small tortoiseshell – do tell us whether you have any success.

          1. 7 small whites and a single ringlet during my 15 minute count. Did have a single small tortoiseshell yesterday, my first in the garden this year, and a large white in the veg patch earlier today, but not a single peacock yet this year and butterflies seem scarce generally.

      2. It does sound wonderful but I would argue that Derek is not fortunate – that’s as it should be – it’s us that are unfortunate!

        It’s so hard to keep positive; today’s blog is a good attempt though Mark. Thanks!

        1. Roger – you are, of course, quite correct. Derek isn’t lucky – we are dispossessed. Thank you.

        2. Roger – you are, of course, quite correct. Derek isn’t lucky – we are dispossessed. Thank you.

  3. I was kindly given Giant Hyssop [Agastache Uoticifolia] and yesterday it was doing its job attracting Small Tortoiseshells to the garden. I will have to take it in for the winter as it is a bit soft when it comes to frost. Large numbers of ‘willies’ are moving through the garden and the Pied Wags look like they have finally raised 2 young. Some bad thoughts about the government’s new ‘Greed Deal’ as it will close up many Swift’s nest holes but fortunately only 36 people have taken it up so far not the 10,000 they expected!

  4. Swifts are one of the loveliest things of the summer and their screams overhead are one of the great pleasures of being out on a July evening. House sparrows used to be a constant presence chirruping away in our back yard in Newcastle but sadly the national decline of this species seems to have finally caught up with our local bunch – a sad indictment on us that such a familiar and common species should have been allowed to become so uncommon.
    I have not seen one recently but in the past I have had a lot of pleasure watching a wood mouse scavenging peanuts in the yard and it was fun finding the evidence of its gnawing on candles left outside on a table.

    1. I was watching a flock of screaming Swifts twisting and turning at dusk in Cullercoats yesterday evening, while explaining to my friend that they sleep on the wing at great height.

  5. Woke up this morning to find a peacock resting on the windowsill next to the window box, looking satisfied from the buddleia in the front garden. Yesterday seemed to be second brood day, 4 young blackbirds exploring the allotments, young wood pigeon and stock dove checking out the feeding station for the seed discarded by the young parakeets. The goldfinches are much tidier, 2 youngsters feeding carefully and, as my grandmother used to say “masticating their fooood”.

    Oh, and the hedgehogs we had in the garden last month haven’t gone far, they are resting under the neighbour’s kayak stack!

    We have around 10 swifts now, nesting in the school near us. 4 was the maximum count early on so I’m hoping that’s 6 young’uns fledged. Their joyful screams are one of the great sounds at the start and the end of the day.

    What a lovely time of year!

  6. I’ve yet to see a bird actually in our garden (new build house on the outskirts of Biggleswade, we moved in last December) although have seen quite a few from the back of the house/garden including kestrel, skylark, swift, house martin, starling, buzzard, collared dove, carrion crow, wood pigeon and goldfinch. Our plot is near a school with mature trees in its grounds (some nice white poplars) so a blackbird sung from there when the birds were still singing. House martins have been investigating eaves on some of the houses, though not ours. No house sparrows yet, though there are a few on the older housing estate nearby where some of the gardens are bit unkempt.

    Some of what we planted (2 out of 4 buddleia cuttings survived and are doing very well, plus lavendar and some herbs) are starting to attract a few bees and the odd butterfly, the commonish small white ones (must learn to identify them). The oversize field maple the builders very kindly stuck in the ground for us is spectatularly dead.

    Not in the garden but only just up the road had a hobby being chased by about thirty swifts last Saturday morning. They weren’t screaming – the only time I’ve seen that many together in silence.

    It’s my impression that greenfinches are much less common than they were even a few years ago – have I imagined this?

    1. MK – thanks for that. Greenfinches have declined – disease (please wash your bird feeders now and again).

      I haven’t seen a hobby over the garden this year (which is odd) but I watched one eating cockchafers (I think) near Boxworth, cambs, one evening last week.

      The buddleia in my garden is a late-flowering one. Sometimes this pays off big time and it is covered with butterflies in early September.

      1. Jonathan – thank you!
        I’ve been thinking about my description of gardens on the neighbouring estate and thinking I should have said “not over tidy” rather than “a bit unkempt”. Nothing wrong with unkempt gardens, I like unkempt gardens, but perhaps some of those proud householders wouldn’t have appreciated my description.

  7. Fledgings of potted flyscrapers, wrens, robins and an outburst of goldfinches. Tall ashes full of long-tailed tits. Hardly a swallow or swift, no audible owls, but I suspect a garden wobbler, ominously few buzzards on thermals, but distinct lack of thermals until recently. Masses of butterflies after a slow start and bumblebees everywhere including under the thatch over the bathroom. Moths setting off the lights at night constantly. Plantains and convolvulus have colonised the ex-molehills, and the borders are riddled with vole holes. One ruby-tailed wasp seen, but as yet no ‘ummingbird ‘awk moth. Glow worms. Lack of toads. A succession of Lathyrus vernus, aubretia, geraniums, raspberries, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, foxglove explosion, scabious (seem to induce coma in bees!?) Buddleja x.weyriana, lavender, marjoram supplying nectar. It’s all rather blissful but nearly time for the re-stocking of the goony birds and the crop of headless corpses around the gaff while the dog skulks on the grass looking guilty.

    1. Filbert – you do talk some rubbish sometimes (here at least) but I love your comments. Please keep them coming.

  8. It’s been a funny ol’ week or so, particularly on the hymenoptera front. I went on a bumble bee walk a week or two back which confirmed my general impression that they are good chaps to have around and taught me that 85% of our bumble bees are six species, five of which I can now recognise (ish). I started to look in our garden (high up in the Peak District hills so low diversity of almost everything) and found we have a nice colony (probably B. terrestris) in the walls of our house.

    I have worried about the paucity of honey bees in our garden this year (whilst recognising I have no idea what normal is because I haven’t taken notes). And then on Monday 10,000 arrived all at – once closely followed by a swarm collector.

    My enormous figwort plant is ready for wasps and bees.

    Peregrines, ravens, sparrowhawks are regular, woodcock occasional (but not this year). Curlews calling accompanies a g and t in the garden well I find – but thinking about it, I think they left about a week ago.

    Yes a good year for swifts here too.

    Butterflies? Rare as hen’s teeth. I will butterfly watch this weekend – with very low expectations.

  9. Interesting observation about the Hobby Mark, I thought I was alone in not seeing many this year (only three), though I did witness one at 21:35 (almost dark) snatch a small bat, not sure if it was opportunistic snatch or it’s something Hobbies do. I’ve photographed many Hobbies but I’ve never seen one snatch a bat or be out hunting so late. In my garden I watched a Buzzard hawking insects too which was nice.

  10. The garden is fairly quiet at the moment, with the amount of food consumed having gone down significantly. I’m waiting for my feeders to empty a bit more before cleaning them. Pigeons galore, but a few Starlings, Goldfinches (lots), Greenfinches (one or two), my regular Dunnock, and a few Jackdaws and Magpies hanging around.

    I bought the house in December and it will take a few months to finish off the inside, and then I will be able to tackle the garden. I am looking for some small pallets to make a bug hotel, and I’ve already got some roof tiles to go on top of it. The garden will have a sizeable pond, a Buddleia and various other features. In the short term I have a piles of grass cuttings and brash in the shade of a wall, and the Dunnock and Blacbird certainly spend some time there. Looking forward to putting plans in to action, rather than just talking about it all.

    1. “a Buddleia”

      Make room for more – esp the x.weyriana hybrid (golden balls). Short flowering season but worth it. Don’t be afraid to prune Budds hard – they will take it and may take over if you don’t. And make room for marjoram – I just counted seven peacocks and 31* bumblebees on the clump outside.

      * possibly 35 – they wouldn’t keep still

  11. Nice blog Mark. We’ve enjoyed these dog days too, and our little London garden is richer in wildlife than it used to be. Foxes live next door but they, our cats, and birds all seem to get along together, if warily. We have a blackbird with a very distinctive jazzy coda to his song that has had a territory here for at least the last four years, and it’s a real pleasure to hear it afresh each year. Slightly less welcome is their now incessant ‘pook-pook’ call (I fear mainly in response to our cats). Since this often seems to be uttered when the birds have food in their beaks I wonder if it serves as a distraction noise as well as a warning.

    We also have many more swifts this year, or at least there are more to be seen. Since swifts have been noted as in particualr decline in London, that’s very welcome.

    I wish I was better at identifying creatures other than birds (well I wish I was better at birds too). I suppose I had better start learning now the RSPB has changed its strategy. But we do have quite a lot of butterflies here – and many moths. I was pleased to find a swallowtail moth in my study the other day, though that’s an easy one.

    Derek’s list suggests his garden can’t be far from ours in the Cevennes. We have all of those on our “terrace list” (only sightings made with a glass in the hand count), plus quite a few mammals on the meadow, including wild boar. Lucky us, we’re off there on Saturday.

  12. Very nice to hear about your garden Mark – and a blog free of controversial comments I would think!

    Here in sunny Berkshire, we’ve had a grand old time in the garden this summer so far – unlike last it has to be said..

    Firstly the pond that I dug in the frrreezing spring has matured quite nicely with water forget-me-nots, irises, woundwort, spearwort and starwort all doing well – and of course attracting caddis flies, midges, backswimmers, some lovely large water beetles, millions of tiny daphnia and a healthy amphibian population to boot, not to mention plenny of odonates – including a black tallied skimmer – quite a treat!

    Talking of insects, I’ve managed to run the moth trap most nights this year (unlike last) – and after a slow start, had some real beauties so far this summer including both small elephant hawk moth and (normal-sized) elephant hawk moth – stunning things.

    Other insects of note this year have been our wee colony of stag beetles that seem to reside in a mature, dead buried and rotting eucalyptus root system, cockchafers, garden chafers and rose chafers, several hornets (that took up residence in an old tree next door), a nest of tree bumblebees that nested in our attic, many fourteen spot ladybirds (outstripping in numbers all other ladybird spp. in the garden put together), quite a healthy crop of butterflies this year including a first for the garden…. a marbled white and a marvellous success story for the two bee hotels I’ve bought – in which ALL the bamboo nest sites have been used and “bricked up” with leaves by Megachile leafcutter bees.
    All watched over by the most spectacular (if tiny) wasps in the UK – the ruby-tailed wasps.

    What about birds?
    Anyone reading this that knows me (not many I expect) will know that I have always been besotted by swifts. I filmed them breeding in our attic a few miles away for a few years, but now we’ve moved to the edge of a post-war town (where swifts have not nested before) I have to entice the dashing devil birds down to “shaynoo”. So I’ve turned one side of the eaves, the gable end of the house into swift paradise – with spaces (internal and external, for at least three pairs of swifts to nest if they so wanted) – and each day played the swift attractor call from an old phone at top volume from the roof top. Luckily it’s so high pitched, our octogenarian neighbours probably can’t hear it, or if they can, they’ve not complained yet! We’ve had swifts bang and scream round our house since early May – and will expect them to continue to do so for a couple of weeks yet. I might expect to spend up to five years attracting swifts to a new breeding site, but you know, after this year I have high hopes that I’ll be filming them again inside the roof next year.

    Whats that you say? Other birds?

    Are there any other birds?

    We, like you Mark, have kites over regularly. Only we are MUCH closer to one of their main introduction areas in the Chilterns (and they LOVE Reading and her neighbours including us I guess, just) – so we have kites skimming the rooftops every 10 minutes or so here – all year. The pair of peregrines roosting on top of the town’s doomed tower-block are regularly in the air above the garden also.
    Avian highlights in the garden this summer have been green woodpecker (which took out our blackbird nest unfortunately), goldcrest and sparrowhawk I guess – but to be fair, its only when autumn arrives and the swifts have gawn orf, that our garden starts to bloat with birds.

    Anything else to note? Mammals?
    We dont tend to particularly encourage foxes into the garden as we keep free-range hens, but next door feed the critters each night and this week we’ve been infiltrated by two “teenage” fox cubs looking for new grounds to explore. Luckily the hens were safely locked in their fox-proof coop for the night.
    Other mammals include the omnipresent woodmice that I catch on my trailcam whilst filming the antics of the breeding hedgehogs we have (now) each night. We are very lucky in that respect, although I helped a little I think by digging hog highways under our fences and providing a hibernaculum which was used last winter.
    The only other mammals that I know about are the pips that circle the garden and pond each night. Both common pips and soprano pips roost locally and I think we’ve identified both with the help of a local expert and his bat gear.

    I took “the trouble” to leave half our pretty large area of lawn to “meadow” this year – and we’ve had hundreds of creeping buttercup and clover, wild carrot, poppies and trefoil spring up at various stages – not to mention red and white campion, thistles, ragwort and one lone cornflower. All that combined with the apple, cherry and damson blossom, the fox gloves we’ve planted as well as the Canadian goldenrod thats invaded from a local train track I guess means that our garden has been alive and humming with activity all summer long.
    I’ll not mow the meadow until mid August now, to ensure seeds are set.

    So that’s all really. We’re very luck here – having such a lovely garden to enjoy now we’ve done a year’s work on it. That said, we only bought the house on account of the potential of the garden.
    The house itself? Not much more than a two up two down really.
    It’s all about the priorities you know!

  13. Lovely blog,lovely comments but why oh why does Hugh Webster have to have such a biased view of U K landowners most of who are trying hard to improve things even if they do get some subsidies,the fact is that average sized landowners by far the majority do not get fantastic amounts and if we put a Bear on H W doorstep guess who would be complaining.Lots of landowners doing things with rspb,farmers and ex farmers just cannot win and critics like this just provoke those that are great for wildlife and make those thinking about it say sod it what’s the point with people like this.H W look up what lots of farmers are doing with the rspb.

  14. Sitting in the garden Friday evening (a bottle of sauvignon blanc, not rioja). An annual phenomenon is occurring. The flying ants are taking off in their thousands and above
    In the sky a feeding frenzy of black-headed gulls and hirundines! I wonder if it’s happening all over the country?

  15. Just getting around to reading your blog, made me laugh out loud! Here in South Derbyshire, prefer that to Derby! I have definitely seen more Swifts which was beyond expectations and a few House Martins too. Red Kites do appear in the area but I haven’t seen one yet, maybe I need to look up a bit more.
    We have just invested in a camera trap, and have been delighted with the results, regular night time visitors much to our surprise include 3 Hedgehogs and a fox! I can thoroughly recommend getting one.
    The first year I haven’t picked up Pipstrelles on the detector and my butterfly count was much like yours. Enjoynthe summer and your garden Mark.

  16. Flying ants here in north yorkshire too today and thermals of gulls taking advantage, sadly not over the garden. I’ve just come in having set the moth trap, hopefully it will be a good catch, last weekend we caught over 80 species in my partners rural and large Welsh garden. sparrows abound here and kites are at least daily although further north and est in the county their numbers have suffered due to the shooting and poisoning classes. I’ve not seen the pipistrelles this week and although very suburban I do have wood mice and the occasional hedgehog, very amusing when one meets the cat! I’m trying to make the garden more wild life attractive but with work and being out watching wildlife its a slow process. What is without doubt is how much we all value our gardens and by doing so we probably make them better for wildlife
    I suppose that you are partly right Dennis and I would like you to be much more right but too many farmers get too much for doing too little I’m sorry to say. Then the bar has been set far too low and that is not their fault. Hugh is right too and yes I too want the things we have lost back wolf, lynx and bear included ( oh and Hen Harrier)

  17. Lots going on in some gardens it seems. Here in West Berks countryside I was honoured and excited to find a whole host of tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars munching through my special nettle patch. According to the books, the adults are extremel fussy about where they lay their eggs, but they selected our nettles. It’s amazing how mobile the caterpillars are, and how quickly they grow! My husband, who until recently apparently had never seen a bee or a caterpillar, made a bee hotel and was gratified to see several of the holes stopped up with sawdust after only a few days. Must be doing something right.

    Veg garden takes up a lot of space. Peas under barricades to keep the wood pigeons out (not the most popular species visiting this garden), but broad bean flowers, courgettes, squashes and raspberries keep the bees busy. The deliberately left to go to seed parsnips and fennel produce spectacular high-rise insect platforms for any number of tiny and not so tiny insects, and the strawberries keep the blackbirds happy! I have to buy mine from the local PYO!

    Buddleia are great for bees and butterflies, but so are cosmos, as they flower so late in the season.

    Kites plentiful, cornbuntings sing from across the road but, frustratingly, never from the garden, ravens and buzzards are also common sightings. House sparrows at home in the loft, and very noisy they are too. Swallows in next door’s barn don’t seem to be quite so numerous this year – had the feeling they had a very bad year last year and are still recovering. Best bird from the house? – for me has to be yellow wagtail feeding in pony paddock next door.

    Our garden is deliberately untidy and even the veg patch is not a weed free zone, although it is an artificial chemical free zone. Sure there is lots more living here than I know about, at least I hope so. It’s great being able to have a bit of space to allow wildness in – in complete constrast to the arable desert across the road.

  18. Returned home (Kentish Town, NW5) to find our view of neighbours’ backgardens completely changed. It took me about thirty seconds to realise the 30ft sycamore, almost touching our 1st floor flat was gone. From our front door are Cherry, Pear, Walnut (a very good year), Myrtle, Leylandii, Bay and Fig so it’s not total devastation. But the close views of fledgling Blue and Great tits I’ll miss. Been here 5 years and seen some great birds – mostly flyovers including Marsh H, Osprey and Purple Heron but no Red Kites, yet.

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