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Wildlife Garden blog

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Greetings from a garden full of Spring promise! After an absence of several weeks, I recently left winter dormancy behind and have been welcomed by the optimism of spring from the Garden.

 

The productive work carried out by Larissa, Naomi and our wonderful volunteers these past few weeks is evident from the signs of coppicing, pollarding, pruning and propagating, as well as thinning out some of our most determined umbellifers - cow parsley, hogweed and ground elder.

 

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Coppiced alder (Alnus glutinosa)

© Derek Adams

 

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Seed propagation in preparation for our Spring Wildlife Event on Saturday 5 April

© Sue Snell


And the garden itself has a surprise around every corner. On the ground in the coppiced woodland habitat and beneath the mature lime, the daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are in bloom.

 

2. .WLG_06032014-108 daffodils (Custom).JPGThe first of our native daffodils was recorded on 25 February nine days earlier than last year

© Jonathan Jackson

 

There's a fair sprinkling of primroses (Primula vulgaris) in flower, with many more buds yet to open.

 

3. WLG_06032014-058  primroses 6_3_14 (Custom).JPGPrimroses at the edge of woodland - first flower recorded on 18 February; just a couple of days earlier than last year

© Jonathan Jackson

 

A deeper shade of yellow is offered by the fluffy heads of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) which brighten up the hedge banks.

 

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Coltsfoot, a plant typical of waste areas but welcome in our garden

© Derek Adams

 

Red dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum) along the path provides nectar for early flying insects, and other shades of pink include the occasional red campion (Silene dioica) and herb robert (Geranium robertianum).

 

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Red campion thrives in our Wildlife garden -  at least one plant can be seen in flower throughout the year

© Derek Adams

 

Sweet violet (Viola odorata) is in flower between hedge and pond and dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) is increasing its territory beneath silver birch and ash. We'll be contributing our first flower and animal sightings to the Woodland Trust's Nature's Calendar.

 

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Dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) - first flower this year was recorded on 13th January

© Jonathan Jackson

 

But what is most striking is the volume of bird song this week! After crossing the threshold of the Garden the traffic noise of Cromwell Road melts away and a symphony takes over inlcuding the medodic song of blackbirds and robins, rich trills and 'Tshews' from a flock of greenfinches, a medley of calls from blue, great and long-tailed tits, the occasional sound from our moorhen couple, and more.

 

There are flashes of red and yellow from goldfinches, and blue and yellow as blue tits whirr across our pathways. Territories are being established, courtship is in progress - and in some cases nesting material is already being transported to niches within ivy-clad trees:

 

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A female blackbird was observed building a nest in ivy this week but here the male is feeding up on ivy berries

The supply of rowan berries referred to in recent blogs is finally exhausted!

© Jonathan Jackson


And to nest boxes, and the eaves of our garden shed:

 

DSC_0674 (Custom).JPGA wren started building here this week, the site was then taken over by a robin and now is currently vacant...

© Larissa Cooper

 

 

But not to hedges where there is too little camouflage just yet:

 

DSC_0399 catkins (Custom).JPGCatkins amongst the bare branches of one of our laid hedges

© Jonathan Jackson

 

Hazel catkins broke hedge dormancy in early January and now white flowers appear on the bare branches of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa).

 

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Our first blackthorn flowers opened on 18 February

© Jonathan Jackson

 

This is our earliest flowering native shrub in the Wildlife Garden (and elsewhere). Clouds of white blossom are already visible in hedges in the countryside. One of the many country sayings relating to Blackthorn is that its flowering is said to coincide with a cold spell - but not this week. More blackthorn country sayings and uses can be found on Roy Vickery's website of Plantlore.

 

Blackthorn is a spikier relative of hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) - and an excellent hedge companion, quick growing and providing good nest sites amongst a network of spiny branches and thorns. And, in autumn, sloes are food for berry-eating birds.

 

But this shrub and hedgerow plant is beneficial to many other species: providing nectar for early flying insects such as the tree bumble bee (Bombus hypnorum), first sighted in the garden this year on 15 February; and buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) observed on 6 March.

 

It's one of the larval food plants for many beautiful moth species including sloe midget (Phyllonorycter spinicolella), tufted button (Acleris cristana), clouded silver (Lomographa temerata) and the brimstone moth (Opisthograptis luteolata), all of which have been recorded here. You can read more about moth recording in the Wildlife Garden, by Lepidopterist Martin Honey in the Spring issue of evolve - the Museum's quarterly magazine.

 

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Brimstone Moth - this particular specimen was caught in our light trap on 6 August and released the following morning

© Florin Feneru

 

This week also we were shown the concept plans for the redesign of the Museum grounds, some of which included some surprising suggestions for the Wildlife Garden - you can read about this competition at Malcolm Reading Consultants.

 

Its been a fine Spring week but March is a capricious month and country sayings about the blackthorn weather may yet ring true.

 

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Coltsfoot (again)

© Derek Adams

 

In the meantime we intend to hold on to our Spring optimism in the Museum's Wildlife Garden and continue to promote and conserve biodiversity here in the heart of London.

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While some of us are head down searching for first flowers, others are alert to life higher up: Wildlife gardener, Daniel Osborne, who often spots some of the Wildlife Garden's less common sightings shares his winter observations:

 

“For those prepared to venture out in the cold, observing birds in winter has a charm all its own. While many of the enigmatic summer species will have migrated south, and none of the spring breeding displays or nesting behaviour will be in evidence, birds in winter are no less engaging.

 

There are still many species around. Blackbirds, robins, finches (including colourful flocks of goldfinches), tits, wrens, dunnocks and many corvids are common in gardens throughout winter. They are more or less non-migratory, but movement within these species does occur - from the colder north, and even from the countryside into cities.

 

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One of our resident robins (Erithacus rubecula)

© Mark Humphries

 

Some species, such as fieldfares and redwings, are encountered only in winter when they leave their summer breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Siberia. Redwings have been recorded in the Garden this year, as in previous years, and a pair of mistle thrush have chosen to make the Garden their home this winter, as reported in our December post.

 

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Redwing (Turdus iliacus) have been spotted in the Garden during the past month
© Phil Hurst

 

Due to the scarcity of food, many different species will flock together in winter feeding parties. Excellent viewing opportunities are afforded by the absence of foliage on the deciduous trees.

 

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A great tit (Parus major) in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams

 

And birds are increasingly willing to visit garden bird feeders.

 

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European greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) and blue tit (Parus caeruleus) on our garden bird feeder

© Derek Adams

 

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Our resident moorhens (Gallinula chloropis) ensure nothing is left to waste below the feeders...

© Derek Adams

 

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... Though some can get left behind.

© Mark Humphries

 

 

The feeders in the Garden are usually in regular need of refilling during the winter months, although not too much this winter so far. The relatively mild temperatures appear to be offering a continued availability of natural food, and it is interesting to note that the blackbirds only recently started feeding on the rowan berries that they usually pluck in August with precise bursts of hummingbird-like hovering.

 

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Blackbirds (Turdus merula) feed off rowan berries most summers ... but not last summer

© Derek Adams

 

Blackbirds are seen frequently at all times of year in the Garden. They are common, and easily identified, the males a uniform black with a bright orange bill and eye, the females a diffuse brown as seen above and further below.

 

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Male blackbird in the Wildlife Garden
© Mark Humphries

 

They have the habit of cackling noisily when they take off and slowly bringing their tails up to the vertical when they land, making them identifiable even at distance.

 

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Female blackbird
© Derek Adams

 

The males are territorial and will often proclaim their territory from the same branch. It's my estimate that the Garden is the site of at least three different male blackbird territories. One male has a spot in the apple tree in the orchard area from which he can regularly be heard singing. At this time of year they will be re-establishing their territories and, like all birds, looking for enough food to survive.

 

Winter is undoubtedly a time of great hardship for birds. Severe or extended cold has disastrous effects on bird numbers. But it can also be a time of unrivaled avian spectacle. Starling murmurations are among the most celebrated natural phenomena and reach a peak during winter, when the birds roost most communally.

 

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Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) - sadly uncommon in the Wildlife Garden - our last sighting was in 2009

© Tim Munsey

 

Some parts of Britain entertain huge influxes of swans and geese. Waders and wildfowl flock in huge numbers on the coastlines. And for me, in London, there is always the hope of seeing, in my opinion, the most beautiful of birds, waxwings.”

 

Thank you Daniel!

 

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A waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) - one that is definitely on our Garden wish-list!

© Phil Hurst 

 

We'll be sharing more of our bird sightings with you later in the year

Caroline

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At this time of year we are watching for the first signs of life on the ground, and in this exceptionally mild winter the glossy green spikes of bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) leaves had already started poking through the leaf litter in late December followed by the curled leaves of dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis). And in a small corner, the blue-green tips of snowdrop have been gently pushing through the soil.

 

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) were not planted in the Garden and do not belong in the woodland plant communities that we're trying to create, but when a single snowdrop flower first appeared a few years ago I didn't have the heart to remove it and I have watched it reappear each year with steady but increasing vigour. Its first flowering date has varied by a few days to a week - the latest being 4 February last year - a harsh winter. We found it in flower at lunchtime today - 27 January -  though there were plenty of earlier sightings elsewhere in the country as reported in The Woodland Trust's Nature's Calendar.

 

Wildlife%20Garden%2027Jan2014_037[1] copy-700px.JPGSnowdrop in the Wildlife Garden - lunchtime on 27 January

Jonathan Jackson

 

But is it or is it not indigenous to Britain? Museum botanist, Fred Rumsey, tells us more about this dainty flower and how it arrived in this country:


Snowdrops are so familiar to us and are so ubiquitous in those areas around where we live that it has been natural to think of them as native.

 

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Common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in drifts in a wooded Somerset lane

Fred Rumsey

 

However, this isn’t the case and although we know that they were present in British gardens by 1597, the first records from a wild situation were not made until 1778. Clues to their true status can be gained by looking in detail at where they appear in our landscape and in which habitats.

 

In most cases it is apparent from where the plants have escaped as most plants grow near gardens, when in wilder places they usually appear with other plants of garden origin; seed-set is often poor and most spread is by gradual division of the bulbs. This clonal spread is often most apparent where the double flowered ‘flore pleno’ forms have been planted.

 

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Galanthus ‘Blewbury Tart’: found in St. Michael’s churchyard, Blewbury, Oxon. in the 1970s - it has upward facing rather spiky double flowers

Fred Rumsey


People often don’t realise that there are actually quite a few species of snowdrop (genus Galanthus). Views differ on how many, but most authorities currently recognize 20. These are distributed from southern-central Europe, through the eastern Mediterranean, down to the mountains of the Middle East but with the highest concentration of species and diversity in Turkey and the Caucasus.

 

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Galanthus ikariae: a broad green-leaved snowdrop from the Greek Islands. Plants now sold as this are usually the similar G. woronowii from the Caucasus. It has a smaller green mark.

Fred Rumsey

 

While all rather similar in appearance subtle differences help differentiate them. The key points to look at are the arrangement of the leaves when they emerge: are they separate and facing each other, or does one wrap round the other? Are the margins flat or neatly folded under?

 

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Supervolute vernation: the inner leaf wrapped by the outer, as shown by Galanthus elwesii and very different from that shown by G. nivalis

Fred Rumsey

 

What colour are they: grey, greeney-grey or green; matt or glossy? The flowers too differ: when are they produced, from Autumn to late spring, and in their form - the shape and colouration of the three smaller, inner perianth segments being most useful to tell the species apart.


Much of the horticultural interest in these plants though is not centred on the wild-type species but on the selected cultivars of them, many of which are of hybrid origin. The return of soldiers and tourists from the Crimean wars with floral souvenirs in the shape of the more robust and free-seeding Galanthus plicatus (pleated snowdrop) brought excellent breeding stock back into British gardens. These when mixed with the common snowdrops in our gardens have given rise to some of the most garden-worthy and persistent snowdrop cultivars.

 

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Galanthus ‘Wasp’: a popular cultivar with narrow outer perianth segments and strong markings on the inners which together give its waspish appearance

Fred Rumsey


In recent years these plants have been experiencing a huge surge of interest with many more gardeners overcome by ‘Galanthomania’ - the demand for new and interesting named cultivars pushing prices up to stratospheric levels.

 

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  Galanthus ‘Hippolyta’: a very neat double flowered hybrid raised by H.A. Greatorex in the 1940s

Fred Rumsey

 

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Galanthus elwesii ‘Grumpy’

Fred Rumsey

 

Each year during the brief season some bulbs change hands on internet auction sites for many hundreds of pounds. Flowers in which the green colouration normally just found on the tips of the inner segments occurs over much of the flower seem particularly sought after and fought over, as are those with more peculiarly shaped flowers with all of the segments similar in shape and colour - my favourites of these are ‘Trym’ and ‘South Hayes’.

 

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Galanthus ‘South Hayes’

Fred Rumsey

 

Thank you Fred, and for the beautiful photographs.

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The berry season has been spectacular this year, and continues, in green (ivy), in black (tutsan and privet), and more seasonally, in many shades of red and orange. Clusters of red fruit remain on our rowan trees and it’s easy to spot feeding birds within the bare branches. This morning I watched 2 plump mistle thrushes gorge themselves while blackbirds fed on a neighbouring tree - so no surprise that we have so many rowan seedlings throughout the garden.

 

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A morning feast - mistle thrush and blackbird on neighbouring rowans.

 

Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) brightens dark corners of woodland together with the maligned stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) - it doesn't smell bad!.

 

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Butcher's-broom (Ruscus aculeatus).

Derek Adams

 

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Stinking Iris (Iris foetidissima).
Derek Adams

 

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) dangles its ripe red berries over fences and through hedges where a few bruised rose-hips and the occasional pink of an unripe blackberry can also be found. But it is the holly (Ilex aquifolium) that steals the show; its scarlet berries looking luscious amongst the dark shiny leaves.

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A holly tree (Ilex aquifolium) in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson

 

Holly is a rich source of food for birds and crucially will be available when most other berries have been exhausted. Blackbird, mistle thrush and redwing - all members of the family Turdidae (the thrushes) - will compete with woodpigeon and squirrels for the fruit. Our Christmas card icon, the robin, very occasionally feeds on these berries too.

 

Holly berries are resistant to the extreme cold and stay well preserved for several months, but another reason for their longevity is the mistle thrush.  Barbara and John Snow who spent years studying the ecological interaction between birds and berries*, observed that some holly trees are fiercely defended by mistle thrush.

 

By preventing other birds from feeding on the fruit, mistle thrushes can conserve the berries as a long-term food supply which may last all winter through to spring. And as they suggest, this conservation of hollies by mistle thrushes is one of the reasons there are always holly berries around on some trees for our festive decorations. 


Roy Vickery takes up the seasonal story of holly:

“Although it seems that in earlier times a variety of evergreens were used in Christmas decorations, for many years red-berried holly was the most important one. Indeed, in some parts of  England it was known simply as ‘Christmas’. Before computer-generated posters became common, holly leaves, which even artists with few skills could draw, inevitably adorned notices announcing Christmas events.

2.c  holly hedgeWildlife Garden-171220013-366 (Custom) (Custom).jpg

Hedge holly in the Wildlife Garden.

Jonathan Jackson

 

Although growing holly trees were usually considered to be protective, and therefore should not be cut down, it was sometimes considered unlucky to bring branches of it indoors before Christmas Eve. There are even occasional records of holly being considered inauspicious during the Christmas period.

 

However, most people tried to get sprigs of holly, with its bright red berries and dark green glossy leaves, to decorate their homes. Thus the gathering of holly provided a useful supplementary income for farmers who had trees growing on their land, and gypsies who gathered it wherever they could. In 1980 it was estimated that holly sold at Christmas came equally from these two sources. In some areas, notably Cornwall, Christmas trees were traditionally hollies rather than the more usual conifer trees.

 

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More holly in our garden.

Jonathan Jackson

 

In recent years holly seems to have become much less popular, at least in London. Little was available for sale in 2012, although it appears to have made something of a come-back in 2013. Presumably holly, which tends to soon dry up and lose its leaves in warm conditions is unsuited for display in centrally heated homes, although holly wreaths, usually of natural leaves and wired-on artificial berries, are still commonly produced for decorating graves and attaching to front doors.

 

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Christmas wreath on the door of the Wildlife Garden shed, made by Larissa from willow stems, yew, juniper and holly - nothing artificial here!

 

To a certain extent more easily manageable poinsettias and stems of the deciduous North American holly, known as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), have replaced the hard to arrange holly twigs which were once sought in British hedgerows.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) on sale this weekend in a market in Kent.

 

In the past, outside the Christmas season, chilblains were cured by beating with holly twigs until they bled, branches were pulled down chimneys to clear them of soot, bird-lime used for trapping small birds was extracted from its bark, and an abundance of its berries were believed to foretell a severe winter.”

 

Partly down to the mistle thrush?

 

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Winter holly in the Wildlife Garden in 2003.

Derek Adams

 

* Snow, B and J. 1988. Birds and Berries. T & AD Poyser

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On return from a week's absence, I was eager to see how our autumn pattern of colours had developed over the past few days in the Garden - ever hopeful that the leathery leaves of the London planes had been whisked away by the high winds last week - they hadn't. But the leaves of field maple had now turned a vibrant yellow and the beautiful honeyed glow of beech had faded. Several hazel have yet to turn colour and many berries and hips remain on trees and shrubs. Here is more, from Larissa who finds some striking comparisons with last year:

 

"This time last year I wrote about the autumnal work we were busy with in the Wildlife Garden. It was 27 November and autumn was well under way. This year, it all seems a bit late. News articles have appeared since October debating whether autumn is late, and by the Woodland Trust’s estimations from data collected in their citizen science project Nature’s Calendar, autumn did arrive around 14 days later than previous years.

 

So it got me wondering and digging around last year’s photos to compare them to this year and there are definitely some variations. The first noticeable difference on last year is the abundance of fruits and berries we have had in the Garden. In fact the rowan (Sorbus acuparia) is still holding on to some fruit not yet eaten by the blackbirds – who haven’t had a short supply of food this year!

 

1a - 21 nov 2013 (Rowan berries) J. Jackson.jpg

Rowan fruits are in abundance this year with large bunches such as this one covering the trees.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

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The rowan tree last year, on 14 November 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

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The same rowan tree this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

You can see from the above two pictures the branches of the rowan trees in 2012 were bare compared to 2013, where the leaves are hanging on and the fruits are abundant.

 

At the edge of the meadow, the beech (Fagus sylvatica) and hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) trees last year were already vibrant in mid-November, but the colours still hadn’t matched 2012 by late November this year.

 

2a- 14 Nov 2012 (meadow trees) J. Jackson.jpg

Our beech woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

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And the beech this year, on 21 November 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

Looking out from the bridge across the chalk pond, you can see from the pictures below the green leaves on the trees that had already turned two weeks earlier last year.

 

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The chalk pond in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

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And the chalk pond in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

Our other woodlands such as this coppice area in the centre of the Garden are strikingly different, and the mature lime tree (Tilia x europea) in the centre of the garden still had some leaves late November this year.

 

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Our coppice woodland in 2012.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

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And a similar view of the coppice woodland in 2013.

© Jonathan Jackson

 

Even now, in December things seem behind of last year. We are still raking falling plane tree (Plantanus x hispanica) leaves and looking up at the branches, some still rather full! I can’t help but view them by how many bags they will fill. The Hazels (Corylus avellana), oaks (Quercus robur) and silver birch (Betula pendula) also have many more leaves still attached compared to last year.

 

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Hazel, oak and birch trees still clinging on to some leaves this year ...

© Larissa Cooper

 

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... compared to last year

© Sue Snell

 

But there is a positive side to this. This time last year, the ground was frosty and cold...

 

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Leaves on the ground were covered in frost this time last year.

© Larissa Cooper

 

...which we are yet to experience this year, but when we do, we'll still be out there in the Wildlife Garden, preparing it for you all to come and enjoy when we re-open on a daily basis again in spring!

 

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No frost in the garden yet this year...

© Larissa Cooper

 

You can help the woodland trust monitor wildlife phenology by taking part in their citizen science projects at Nature’s Calendar.

 

Thank you Larissa!

 

And for more autumn delights from the Wildlife Garden you can watch Mark Spencer on his fungal foray in the Garden last month:


 

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Neatly clipped yew, woven willow, scruffy privet, mixed hedges of several species including hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, field maple, spindle - and other combinations - hedges in town and country provide at least temporary lodging and corridors for small creatures, and at best, in a bushy mixed hedge, a varied structure for small mammals, birds and invertebrates to move through or shelter, nest and forage in.

 

By autumn the blossoms that adorned mixed native hedges in May and June - earlier in the case of blackthorn - have ripened into tempting purple, black and red berries, scarlet hips, burgundy-coloured haws, acorns and hazel nuts. Last month we celebrated these fruits and the biodiversity of mixed hedgerows.

 

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Hawthorn – a common hedgerow plant

 

Our annual Hedgerow Harvest event took place in Wildlife Garden, with talks in the Attenborough Studio and additional activities in the Investigate Centre on 6 October. We also introduced a similar event away in Kent at the end of October - held jointly with the Friends group of Whitstable Museum and Gallery. Here’s how we celebrated:

 

As well as showing off our mixed native hedges in the Garden we held activities and displays about native hedges. In previous years woodland conservationist, Rob Graham, has demonstrated hedge-laying but now that all the hedges in the Garden have been laid, we invited visitors to help plant a new mixed hedge to replace a single species hedge - the yew hedge that Carrie and Ayana surveyed and wrote about in our September blog.

 

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Rob demonstrating hedgelaying in the Garden -  a method of creating a stock-proof barrier and a haven for wildlife
© Photoshot, Natural History Museum

 

We introduced our visitors to some for the animal species that benefit from hedgerows. Some were Museum specimens such as those in the OPAL bug hunt which was a popular and fun introduction to the different groups of invertebrates, including butterflies, beetles and bugs, and a helpful aid to identifying insects in hedges next spring and summer.

 

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Visitors studying for the OPAL bug hunt in the Wildlife Garden

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum

 

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OPAL Bug hunt at Whitstable Museum

© Lydia Heeley

 

Some were crafty paper-made peg animals.

 

PB176903 peg dormice (Custom).JPG

 

Around 80 peg dormice were made!

© Sean Hanna

 

Unfortunately, there was no chance of live dormice in the Garden but Sean, one of our volunteers, created a lively and informative display about this endangered species and their disappearing habitats, and had a captive audience making paper dormice to take away.

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   All about dormice - display in the Wildlife Garden

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum

 

At both events the celebrity guests were hedgehogs...

6 Hedgerow Harvest 071012-077 (Custom).JPG'Sue Kidger Hedgehog Rescue' visited the Wildlife Garden

© Photoshot, Natural History Museum

 

 

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Loraine from Kent Wildlife Rescue introduced Whitstable visitors to rescued hedgehogs that are unable to fend for themselves

© Lydia Heeley

 

...and bats in Whitstable where Hazel from the Kent Bat Group introduced them to a keen audience.

 

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Eden and Ella meeting a pipistrelle bat

© Lydia Heeley

 

 

But food foraging is not just for the wildlife.

 

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Rosehips, sloes and crab apples

 


During the Nature Live session in the Museum's Attenborough Studio we learnt about wild food from Marcus Harrison, which was  followed by a hedgerow plant tour of the garden with Roy Vickery. And, in Whitstable, Jo Barker led a walk in the community allotment to find some of the contents of these hedgerow living larders and medicine cabinets. A food table at both events displayed a wide range of food and drink from berries, nuts and nettles.

 

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Display of harvest from local hedges with tasty food and drink from Whitstable Farmers' Market and local shops

© Lydia Heeley

 

Additional activities using resources found in hedges and associated plants included :

 

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Identifying seeds with the use of a microscope

© Lydia Heeley

 

Making fishing floats from the dried pith of elder trees.

 

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A fishing float made from elder pith

© Lydia Heeley

 

Discovering the many colours using natural plants as dyes.

 

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Ruth demonstrating colours from plant dyes in Whitstable Museum

© Lydia Heeley

 

And making seasonable bird feeders.

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Rupert making an apple bird feeder in Whitstable Museum.

© Lydia Heeley

 

 

Hedges are still in celebratory mood with leaf colours slowly changing to yellow, browns, pink and russet while squirrels, birds and mice in our Garden are busy foraging berries and hips and haws and burying nuts in earthy larders.

 

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Rosehips in the Wildlife Garden

© Derek Adams

 

You can find out more about this beautiful season with Fred Rumsey on his autumn wildlife walk on Hampstead Heath below - and then get outside and see for yourself!

 

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As autumn approaches and the new academic year begins so we lose Thomas Fieldsend, or Tommy as we know him, who enters the final year of his studies for a BSc in Animal Conservation & Biodiversity at Hadlow College. In common with many students, Tommy came to volunteer with us for work experience while studying for the first two years of his degree course. He covered a wide variety of practical and survey work as (hopefully) the images below will show! We will greatly miss his input, and his company. Here he describes his time in the Wildlife Garden:

 

"As a young boy growing up outside of London, a trip to the Museum was a rare treat. So, as I began the first day of my two-year work placement here in November 2011, I couldn’t help but wonder what my younger self would have made of it all. I’m sure he would have been excited; I know my 22 year old self was! I was about to become initiated into the world of the ‘Wildlife Garden Volunteer’, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. As it turns out, the only thing I ever came to expect in the Garden was the unexpected.

 

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November 2011 in the Wildlife Garden

 

 

Although a ‘can do’ attitude may be considered a prerequisite for a Wildlife Garden Volunteer, an ‘I’ll give it a go’ attitude is probably more beneficial, because when your day’s work might include tree felling, sheep corralling, or calculating the Garden’s amphibian population to the nearest hundred, just ‘giving it a go’ often becomes your best course of action.

 

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Amphibian survey April 2013

 

So I was very pleased - and somewhat baffled - when I realised that somewhere along the line I had actually become proficient at performing many of the tasks I had once regarded as exercises in damage limitation.

 

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Tommy and Alex learning to navigate while reducing reeds and great willowherb on the moorhen island


Not only that: I realised I had acquired the vocabulary of the Wildlife Garden natives as well as their skills. I found myself using words such as ‘coppicing’, ‘pedunculate’, and ‘pinnate’, without realising I had even learnt them. I had become, unbeknownst to me, a wildlife gardener!

 

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Newly coppiced hazel

 

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Hedge planting with Alex and Naomi

 

This came as quite a shock, as when I started in the Garden I was a first year Animal Conservation student at Hadlow College who was of the firm belief that he was an 'animal person', not a 'plant person'; that animals and the environment they inhabit could be treated as somehow discrete from one another, even in the context of conservation.

 

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Tommy inspires another young person: making insect hotels during our Spring Wildlife event earlier this year

 

In actuality, most of the work undertaken in the Wildlife Garden consists of facilitating natural ecosystem functioning through habitat management; in this sense, the Garden can be considered an example of effective conservation in a microcosm. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the importance of approaching habitat management and wildlife conservation holistically is the single most valuable lesson I learnt during my time as a Wildlife Garden Volunteer. But whatever I learnt along the way, I know this much: I had a lot of fun, and I won’t be forgetting the time I was part of the Wildlife Garden Team any time soon!

 

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Tommy, Nadia and Alex at the Brighter Kensington and Chelsea Scheme collecting an award in November 2012


Let me finish by thanking Caroline, Larissa, Naomi, and the whole Wildlife Garden Team for all their help and kindness during my time as a volunteer. Special thanks must go to Alex Lynch for the comic relief."

 

Hopefully we'll hear or see more of Tommy Fieldsend ...

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Last month we were fortunate to have two students from the Young Graduates for Museums and Galleries Programme (YGMG), Ayana Porteous-Simpson and Carrie Roberts, spend two weeks helping us in the Garden including the surveying and comparing two of our hedges. They learnt several things along the way as they explain below.

 

 

"After a whirlwind introduction on the 19 August, we began our two week internship at the Wildlife Garden. We were greeted not only by Larrissa, Caroline, Naomi and volunteers, but also by Bee, Bella and Honey, the resident sheep we helped look after for the following two weeks. Our efforts were concentrated mainly on hedgerows, and the comparison of which of the two made a better habitat for wildlife.

 

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'Good morning' from Honey the sheep.


Almost immediately after starting our internship here, it became clear that identifying plants would be an important and large part of our project. Our second hedge has many different kinds of plant species. Identifying them was no easy task, but with the help of Caroline we knew several woody plants by the end of the week. To help gain a picture of the background of hedgerows, Caroline enlisted the help of Roy Vickery who spoke to us about the history of English plants such as hawthorn and holly.

 

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Roy grasping the nettle.

 

One of our first afternoons at the Garden was spent with Museum lepidopterist, Alessandro Giusti, who sorted the moths from the light trap that we helped to set up the night before. Though initially apprehensive, we developed a new found appreciation of the moths, which we realised weren’t scary at all, but quite cute!

 

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Poplar hawk moth.

 

Our next challenge was the dreaded spider counting. Tom Thomas, a fellow of The British Naturalists Association, knowing much more about spiders than we did, took us sweep-netting around the garden in search of our eight-legged enemies.

 

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Searching for spiders with Tom Thomas ...

 

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... around the ponds ...

 

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... and in the yew hedge ...

 

After looking at them under a microscope we found, much in the same way as the moths, they were in fact far more interesting creatures than we expected.

 

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... and then close up!

 

To learn more about the kinds of fauna that live in the hedgerows, we used three different methods of animal catching. The first, (pitfall trapping), helped us look at some of the invertebrates that lived in the hedgerows. We had a hard time identifying them, but we learnt again just how the Wildlife Garden attracts all kinds of insects and other invertebrates.

 

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Identifying some of our findings from the pitfall traps.


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Sadly, our humane mammal traps did not present us with the same array of wildlife, and though we managed to catch a few mice, they escaped before we could examine them. Squirrels, attracted by the seed we lay out for the mice, seemed to work against us as they broke into the traps and stole the food.

 

Lastly, Duncan Sivell who works within the Museum’s Life Sciences department came to help us with sweep netting. Though most of what we found were flies (moth flies, hoverflies, mayflies and midges) and wasps, we also found spiders, and a southern oak bush cricket.

 

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Ayana tries to sweep net.


The two weeks we spent in the Wildlife Garden were both challenging and interesting. Though we knew we would be gardening, we had almost no idea how much we would learn on top of it. From watering plants to spending the day examining spiders under a microscope, we had a great time, and appreciate all the patience and work put in by Larissa, Caroline, Naomi and the volunteers to help us."

 

 

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"We will miss the sheep too."

 

And we also learnt some useful tips from Ayana and Carrie

Thank you and we miss you two already!

 

If you'd like to come and see the Garden and its hedgerows yourself, we'll be giving 'A Walk on the Wildside' tours between 16.30 and 21.30 as part of this Friday's free Science Uncovered event at the Museum.

 

If you can't make it on Friday, then don't miss our Hedgerow Harvest event and talks on the 6 October.

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Most of the species recording in the Garden involves finding out what species have come into the Garden of its own accord, but there are sometimes special circumstances enacted behind-the-scenes to attract certain species to lay their eggs... Poulomi Bhadra explains:

 

"The Wildlife Garden in the summer is thriving with flora and fauna and provides excellent grounds to study the attraction of blowflies to bodies in suitcases. As part of my Masters project at King's, I am investigating blowfly behaviour and particularly their ability to lay eggs without being in direct contact with a food source. This is part of the research conducted by the Museum’s forensic entomologist Dr Martin Hall in collaboration with the Metropolitan Police.

 

Even though preliminary experiments have been conducted indoors in a laboratory at the top of the Southwest Tower (where the smell of decomposing chicken liver wafts undetected above the crowd of visitors in the rest of the Museum!), it was necessary to see if the results could be replicated in field conditions.

 

After several failed efforts to protect the experimental set-ups from the resident foxes - who were evidently attracted to the smell of meat and often stole my experiments - we succeded in a set-up consisting of a dog cage that was enclosed in chicken wire.

 

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Dog cage set-up - weighted down to deter foxes!

 

Petri dishes containing meat, and sealed by a zip, were laid out in the dog cage and behind-the-scenes in the Garden to see if any blowflies would be attracted to them and lay eggs. As it turns out, populations of bluebottles (Calliphora vicina) and greenbottles (Lucilia sericata) visited the cages as soon as they were placed.

 

DSC_0033 (Custom).JPGBlow flies were immediately attracted to the experimental bait

 

The experiment was collected the next day and white dipteran egg clumps were seen to have been laid on the tape of the zips, which had been moistened by the blood and decomposing fluids from the liver beneath. Eggs were also deposited in between the teeth of the zips and when the baits were dismantled in the laboratory, egg clumps were seen hanging like stalactites on the underside of the zips.


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Twenty-fours hours later fly eggs were found laid on the zips

 

This is possible because blowflies lay eggs through ovipositors, which are located at the end of their abdomen. When laying eggs, this ovipositor extends outwards like a lance and can get inside and through crevices, such as the gaps between the teeth of a zip, so that the female is able to drop her eggs.

 

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Female flies extend their ovipositor into gaps to lay eggs in clumps

 

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Calliphora vicina laying eggs on zips in the laboratory experiemental set up

 

During the especially high temperatures this summer, most of the eggs hatched within 24 hours and the first instar larvae, 1-2 mm long, crawled their way through the gaps in the zip to feed on the meat below. The eggs collected from these trials were reared to adulthood in the laboratory.The species that oviposited (laid eggs) predominantly was found to be the bluebottle, Calliphora vicina. Only four adults of the greenbottle, Lucilia sericata, were reared from the laid eggs, even though both species were present in the garden and trapped in the RedTop® flytraps hung nearby for collecting wild-type flies from the garden. 

 

In the beginning of August, a different experiment  was simulated in the field to study a case scenario: a pig’s head, purchased from a butcher's shop, was put in an airline cabin suitcase and then put inside the wired cage. Flies were seen visiting the suitcase regularly during daylight hours but no eggs were seen until the second day, when a single egg was laid on the cloth seam of the suitcase and near the zip. By the third day, more eggs had been laid between the folds of the seam and the zip and inbetween the teeth of the coiled plastic zip. First instars were seen later, travelling along the length of the zip around the suitcase.

 

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Simulation of case scenario - a pig's head in a suitcase inside the cage, left in this position for 3 days

 

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Flies deposited their eggs in between the teeth of the zip and the crevices of the zip slider and the larvae made their way through the zip to reach the food source inside the case

 

The suitcase was brought indoors after three days to avoid the malodours from the decomposition permeating throughout the Garden, which was open to the public. On the eighth day since exposure, third instar larvae were seen dispersing from the suitcase, looking for suitable grounds to pupate. When the suitcase was opened the bait inside was found infested with third instar larvae which meant that the adult flies, or hatching larvae, had been able to penetrate the completely closed zip to gain access to the food inside.

 

The experiment is still under study and we are looking forward to replicating a few more proof of concept studies to establish the potential for delay in egg laying, and to confirm the species that show most propensity of laying on enclosed carrion. The results from this research will have practical value in explaining the presence of larvae on bodies found inside suitcases and will help forensic entomologists estimate a more accurate minimum time since death for the bodies of victims who are disposed of in this manner."

 

Thank you Poulomi, we have enjoyed your company in the Garden this summer, but I can't look at a zipped suitcase in the same way again...

 

For more information about this work please see Museum's forensic entomology web page or come to this year's free Science Uncovered event on the evening of Friday 27 September and see our forensic enotomologists in person.

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One of the many rewards of returning to work in the garden after a short break is not only to see changes in the vegetation that have occurred but also to hear about the different species of insects that have been spotted recently. Here Larissa tells us about the vibrant butterfly life during two sweltering weeks in July:

“Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

― Hans Christian Andersen, The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales

It’s my favourite time of the year and I have welcomed the heat after a cool spring. This spell of fine weather is particularly good news for butterflies, whose populations had suffered from the previous years’ wet and cool summers. Butterflies and moths are unable to fly, find mates, feed or lay eggs to maintain population levels when the weather is poor. They are sensitive to environmental changes, and because of this, they are seen as good indicators of the likely effects on other species from a changing climate.

 

The first to emerge in the Garden earlier in the year at the end of April, were the orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines). Both male and female butterflies were around so hopefully they have mated successfully and we shall see their return next year. The males have the distinctive orange tips on their wings from which they get their name while the female is less conspicuous, lacking the orange tips and distinguished from the whites by the green mottled underwing which she shares with the male.

 

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Orange tip - this male was hiding from the April chill earlier this year, in the warmth of our greenhouse. Photo © L. Cooper

 

Early May saw the arrival of the first speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus). The holly blue is a delicate and beautiful butterfly with their blue wings brightening up the early spring garden. It gets its name from its preference for holly (Ilex aquifolium), but it also lays its eggs on ivy (Hedera helix), especially the summer brood.

 

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Holly blue - while males and females differ slightly on the upper wing, they are less distinguishable on the underside. Photo © Peter Eeles, Butterfly Conservation

 

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Speckled wood - often seen sunning themselves on a log in the Garden's woodland areas, or around the shed. Photo © L.Cooper

 

There have been plenty of large and small whites (Pieris brassicae and Pieris rapae, respectively) around since spring, dancing together over our pond and in the meadow. Although common and seen as a pest to many allotment owners, you can’t deny their beauty when in flight.

 

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Large white - setting aside one or two cabbages for caterpillars, and removing them from the rest, could be a way to happily coexist with the small and large white butterflies. Photo © Tim Melling, Butterfly Conservation

 

But it’s these last two weeks in July which have been the most impressive. The arrival of the sun has brought more butterflies with it and it never ceases to amaze me just how much wildlife can be found in this little acre of green in the heart of London.

 

On the 15 July, I sighted the first visits of the year to the Garden from 3 different species. First up, a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) passed me by near the pond resting just long enough in the reeds to admire its bright colours.

 

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Red admiral. Photo © Neil Hulme, Butterfly Conservation

 

The red admiral was followed shortly by a skipper flying around the hedgerow flower near the greenhouse. These were planted with the aim of providing a nectar source for insects so it good to see that it is working! Unfortunately, the skipper lived up to the reason for its name and was quick to fly away so I have neither a photo or species identification, but I think it was likely to be a large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus).

 

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Large skipper - the members of this genus adopt a typical pose making it easy to identify them as skippers. Photo © Ian A Kirk, Butterfly Conservation

 

I then spent about an hour, on and off, trying to spot an elusive bright orange butterfly which kept tempting me, then flying away at the last moment. It looked too bright to be a British specimen at first and I thought it may possibly have been an escapee from the Museum's nearby butterfly house that is on the East Lawn for the summer. However, when it landed long enough for me to take the poor picture below, before it took to the wing and disappeared, I was able to identify it as a comma (Polygonia c-album). Although it was a first for me, it has been a frequent visitor to the garden in previous years and it is resident in the country.

 

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A comma - bigger than I imagined, but recognisable from the rough wing edges. The species gets its name from a white 'c' shape on the underside of its otherwise brown wing. Unfortunately, this one didn't stop for long enough for me to capture this signature marking. Photo © L. Cooper

 

A couple of days later, not only did our new volunteer Alora spot the first six spot burnet moth of the year but a little while later we had a Garden first. A ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) settled in the meadow long enough for us to take a picture and identify it by the distinctive rows of rings on the underside of its wings (n.b. they do also have rings on the upper wings). This was a very exciting day!

 

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Ringlet - not only a first for the Garden but also an uncommon species in London. Photo © N. Lake

 

 

Today I can also add a brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) to the list of my sightings, feeding on purple loosetrife nectar by the Garden’s waterfall.

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A brimstone feeding - my first sighting of the species was earlier this year at Juniper Hall. It’s lovely to see them here in the Wildlife Garden too. Photo © L. Cooper

 

I’ll keep looking for butterflies this summer, and you can also join in with Butterfly Conservation Trust’s Big Butterfly Count. It’s the world’s largest butterfly survey and by taking part you can help monitor the health of our environment. The Big Butterfly Count is really simple and great for all ages, and even comes with a free easy to use smartphone app to help you’re your recordings. To find out more visit the Butterfly Conservation website.

 

Thank you Larissa!

 

P.S. Drop by the Garden to see if you see some of the same butterflies as Larissa or, to see exotic butterflies and moths that aren't native to our shores, visit the Museum's Sensational Butterflies exhibition. It's in it's last few weeks so be sure to come along before it ends on the 15 September.

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As our bee orchids and common spotted-orchids in the Wildlife Garden begin to fade, the summer lady’s-tresses come into bloom and, later-still, come the helleborines. Bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) flowered for the first time in our Wildlife Garden on 17 June. These below were kindly found for us by the Bill Temple, Conservation Officer for the Hardy Orchid Society.

 

 

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Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera var. Belgarum) in the Wildlife Garden chalk grassland area.
© Jonathan Jackson

 

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Bill's close up of a bee orchid (Ophrys apifera var. Belgarum)
© Bill Temple (note the difference between this variety and the true form of bee orchid a few photos below)

 

We hope our bee orchids remain with us and perform as well as our common spotted-orchids (Dactylorhiza fuschii) have done over the years. These were planted ten years ago with help from staff at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (the plants were raised in their micro propagation unit). Later, additional common spotted-orchids were planted in our meadow and woodland glade - donated by one of our photographers who had them growing in his lawn in Sussex.

 

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Common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) in our chalk grassland habitat.
© Derek Adams

 

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Common spotted-orchids are multiplying in our meadow.
© Jonathan Jackson

 

We also had a surprise broad-leaved helleborine Epipactis helleborine appear under our young beech trees 3 years ago and although still solitary, it flowers each year. We don’t know how it arrived.

 

Bill Temple tells us about orchids likely to appear in gardens and shares his wonderful photographs:

 

“A number of orchids regularly appear in gardens, some come as seed with plants purchased from nurseries and other seed blows in on the wind. Orchid seed contains no food reserves so it will only germinate if it lands in an area containing a particular fungus. In the South of England, bee orchids are a common one to appear in lawns.

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Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera).
© Bill Temple

 

Bee orchids are particularly well adapted to growing in lawns - they have a rosette of leaves at the base of the plant which means that thosee leaves are undamaged by regular mowing unless the cutter blades are set extremely low. The leaves appear during autumn and winter and persist until flowering ends, unless there is an earlier drought. This species likes alkaline ground.

 

If the ground is wet, or watered regularly then the common spotted-orchid or green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) can appear. However, these species have leaves higher up their stems, so do not like being mowed. Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) also occurs in lawns but it has long leaves so resents being mowed too.

 

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Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis).
© Bill Temple

 

 

Common spotted-orchids or other dactylorhizas often appear in bog gardens or in pots that are in ponds. Unfortunately - unless these pots are of large diameter - the roots can be severely damaged by freezing which seriously reduces vigour.

 

The orchids most likely to appear with trees purchased from nurseries are broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine), narrow-lipped helleborine (Epipactis leptochila) and white helleborine (Cephalanthera damasonium).

 

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Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine).
© Bill Temple

 

Broad-leaved helleborine has almost become a weed in North America since it arrived there. Even the mature plants of these species depend on the transfer of large amounts of nitrogen and carbon to the orchid from a tree via a fungus and pure white specimens of the first and last species are known which have no chlorophyll and are therefore unable to carry out photosynthesis. All three of these species can flower the first time they appear above ground because of the relationship between the orchid, fungus and tree.

 

Other orchids, occasionally found in lawns are autumn lady's-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis), early spider-orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) and man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) but these are local rather than widespread.

 

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Autumn lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes spiralis) and a pollinator.
© Bill Temple

 

Summer lady's-tresses (Spiranthes aestivalis) is now extinct in Britain as a result of collection by Victorians who collected every specimen at all-but-one of its known sites. The last site, in the New Forest, was drained thus killing the remaining plant. In Europe it lives in wet acidic conditions and can sometimes be found growing in a mat of earth and vegetation floating on top of lakes. The plants growing in the Museum's Wildlife Garden were raised from European seed.

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Summer lady’s-tresses (Spiranthes aestivalis) in the Wildlife Garden this week.
© Jonathan Jackson

 

Marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris) is an attractive plant that grows in alkaline fens and dune slacks where is there is oxygenated water flowing.
It multiplies readily by vegetative means but can be tricky to raise from seed.

 

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Marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris).
© Bill Temple

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Marsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris).
© Derek Adams

 

Please note that it is illegal to collect orchids or orchid seed from the wild in Britain without specific permission to do so. The potential fine is £5,000 per plant taken or damaged, and up to £10,000 per plant in some circumstances.”

 

Thank you Bill, and thank you to ‘Kingfisher’ for prompting our orchid blog. If you have more questions about orchids in your garden Bill will be happy to advise. You can contact him at the Hardy Orchid Society and visit Bill's website. Alternatively, if you are in London tomorrow, 13 July, visit the Hardy Orchid Society stands, amongst others, in the Darwin Centre courtyard and the Wildlife Garden at our Big Nature Day.

 

wpipalpollinator02h26 - 12 (Custom).JPGMarsh helleborine (Epipactis palustris) and pollinator.
© Bill Temple

 

 

One final thing before I go, the Museum's Fred Rumsey featured in this lovely film about bee orchids last year - I hope you enjoy it:

 

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Although it's been quiet on our blog recently, we have been busy elsewhere preparing for and hosting important events, two at the start, and one at the end, of June: our annual Bat Festival (in partnership with the Bat Conservation Trust), the Open Garden Squares Weekend, and the Wildlife Gardening Forum conference this week.

 

And naturally we’ve been busy in the Garden itself sowing seeds, potting on, planting, caring for new plants, removing invasive plants ... as well as observing and monitoring our wildlife. Spring stunned us with a spectacular show of woodland flora, making up for the slow start to this year:

 

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Spring woodland in our Wildlife Garden

 

And now the buttercups are blooming. Three species are flowering amongst other early summer species in our meadow and chalk downland habitats, woodland glades and along paths.

 

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Buttercups on our chalk downland. © Derek Adams

 

Gardening with native flowers is full of surprises: certain species that we thought had disappeared reappear with renewed vigour. So is the case with buttercups and it’s been an especially good year for the buttercup family so far. The first of the buttercup family to appear was lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) on 13 March.

 

New Image celendine (Custom).JPGLesser celandine (Ficaria verna). © Derek Adams

 

Small clumps planted over the years have spread tentatively, until this year, when they exploded into brazen golden clumps announcing the already late spring. After several disappointing years, wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) exceeded our expectations this spring with their generous covering beneath silver birch and oak from March to early April.

 

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Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa). © Derek Adams

 

Later, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), our third member of the buttercup family to bloom this spring, appeared around pond edges and the fen.

 

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Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). © Derek Adams

 

A few plants of columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), a less obvious member of the buttercup family, are still flowering along the hedge boundaries to the north of the garden and are a subtle addition in parts of our woodland areas.

 

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Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris). © Derek Adams

 

But the buttercups that are currently shining in the Garden are meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), bulbous buttercup (Ranunculous bulbosa), and creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens).

 

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Meadow buttercups in meadow. © Derek Adams

 

 

Although superficially very similar, there are a number of features that distinguish these three species, including:

 

  • Bulbous buttercup is in bloom slightly earlier than meadow, and creeping buttercup. It has a grooved stem and its sepals are reflexed. It also has a swollen (bulbous) base to its stem

 

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Under side of bulbous buttercup showing reflexed sepals. © Derek Adams

 

  • Meadow buttercup has rounded stems and more deeply cut leaves than the other two species, and sepals are spreading beneath its petals. It also generally grows taller than the other two species - the tallest in our Wildlife Garden stands at 1.30 metres.

 

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Meadow buttercup - note the sepals under the petals. © Derek Adams

 

  • Creeping buttercup, has grooved stems, spreading sepals and, true to its name, a creeping habit, spreading by means of runners - disliked by most gardeners!

 

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Creeping buttercup: a demonstration of its creeping habit...

 

As well as brightening our meadow areas, the buttercups also bring a special glow to the hedge banks and pathway verges.

 

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Hedge bank. © Jonathan Jackson

 

Buttercups attract a variety of insects and can be seen below hosting a honey bee and ladybird.

 

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So, this is an exciting time of year for we gardeners with different species of flowering plant coming into bloom in rapid succession (including other members of the buttercup family).

 

Caroline

 

P.S. Another big event in the Wildlife Garden is approaching, with Big Nature Day on Saturday 13 July

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With bees very much in the news this month, here is our own bee news from our Wildlife Garden bee-keeper, Luke Dixon:

 

“We have a new bee tree in the Wildlife Garden. It is a great trunk of oak, two tonnes hewn from a tree in The National Arboretum, Westonbirt, Gloucester. It took a specialist team from Norbury Park Sawmill, Dorking, Surrey to fell the tree and cut it into shape.

 

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Delivery of the new bee tree

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria

 

 

And another team to remove the old bee tree and prepare for the new tree...

 

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Spencer Abberley who, with beekeeper Qais Zakaria, removed the old bee tree and prepared the pit for the new tree

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria

 

Then yet another specialist team and two mighty cranes to lift it into the Wildlife Garden and gently lower it into the hole in the ground where the old bee tree once stood ...

 

 

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New bee tree about to be lowered into the ground

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria

 

The old tree had served the garden and the bees well and never has London known a happier colony of bees. Unlike many of their urban sisters, these bees had survived season after season. The colony had thrived in this first bee tree, living in a plastic observation hive, building down natural comb. The only disturbance was visitors opening the doors in the tree to reveal the 'wild' colony, living as bees have done for millions of years, hidden away in the dark interior of a tree.

 

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The colony of bees in the old bee tree

Image copyright: Derek Adams

 

The original colony came from Lambeth Palace and it was the Palace beekeeper, John Chapple, who had suggested the bee tree. A team at the Museum built the hive inside that first tree and John Chapple and I collected a bucket of bees from one of the Palace hives and carefully removed a sealed queen cell that was about to hatch.

 

We placed a few strips of wax in their new home as a starting point to build new wax comb, tipped the bees into the hive, wedged in the queen cell amongst them and then left them to it. After a couple of weeks the new queen had hatched; there were swathes of 'wild' comb, eggs and larvae and the colony was established.


But then, last year, the weight of bees and honey and comb in the colony reached a critical mass and split the hive apart. It was time for a new and larger hive. With fellow beekeeper Qais Zakaria, we set about designing a new bee tree with a bigger hive and a system that enables removal of the bees should they again grow too big for their home.

 

Danny Smith, one of the beekeepers at the London School of Economics and who made their beautiful oak portable observation hive, built our new hive. The new bees came from Oxford in a nucleus box, living on frames just as in any traditional bee hive. This time the bees were shaken from their frames into the new hive. We made sure the queen was amongst them, knowing that if she was in the new hive the thousands of other bees would stay with her.

 

Within a couple of days the bees had built down five pieces of wild comb some six inches long and were already making honey. Soon the queen was laying. The combs the bees came on were placed in one of the Wildlife Garden’s traditional bee hives, the emerging young combining with that hive’s colony.

 

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Inside the new bee tree

Image copyright: Jonathan Jackson


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The new colony of bees lost no time and promptly set to work collecting pollen and are seen here at the hive entrance

Image copyright: Jonathan Jackson

 

And the original bees? Their hive might have split and begun to fall apart, but that had not bothered them at all. When we removed the old bee tree we gently removed the colony within and found them a new home. You can now visit them at the Kennington Lodge Community Apiary in South London.

 

And you can visit our new bee tree every day that the Wildlife Garden is open. All we ask is that you treat the bees with respect: open the door onto their world slowly and be sure to close it after you have looked at them."

 

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Bees prefer to be kept in the dark

Image copyright: Qais Zakaria

 

Thank you Luke and Qais, Spencer and Danny for all the planning, digging and tweaking necessary to install our new bee tree new colony of bees and thank you to our new bee tree-funder, who wishes to remain anonymous.

 

Caroline

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With the Wildlife Garden opening earlier this week and our first event of the year due to happen this Saturday 6 April, Larissa has been looking around the garden for the first signs of Spring ...

 

"Sitting at my desk in the Wildlife Garden shed, I heard something scratching outside. Thinking the squirrels were raiding the bird seed, I crept to the window to catch them at it. No squirrels, then the sound came again but from under my feet. It was the foxes confirming our suspicions they had taken up residence under the shed again.

 

Despite the chilly weather persisting, the garden is slowly beginning to wake up around us with the first bluebells, daffodils, primroses and cowslips appearing, and the blackthorn beginning to blossom.

 

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Wild daffodils in the Wildlife Garden were some of the first to flower this year.

© Derek Adams

 

The leaves of the wild garlic have carpeted the woodland in one area while, in another, dog’s mercury is making an appearance.

 

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A squirrel climbs a tree above the wild garlic covering the woodland floor.

© Jonathan Jackson


However, this is a poor show compared to last year when around this time wood anemone, marsh marigold, wood sorrel, and wild cherry amongst others were all in flower.

 

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A bumblebee enjoys the nectar from a hybrid bluebell in 2012. We haven't spotted many bumblebees yet this year.

©  Jonathan Jackson  

 

Although the sleepy frogs and toads are yet to wake up, the birds are gathering supplies for their nests. This wren spent a whole day meticulously constructing a nest only for it to be blown down the next day.

 

 

 

This wren spent the whole day building a nest precariously balanced on the shed porch ... Unfortunately the wind blew down its efforts the next day!

© Larissa Cooper


It’s not just the wrens who have been busy. The moorhens have been spotted carefully choosing dry leaves and pieces of reed before carrying their finds into their nest box. The box is so full - as you can see from the picture below - there is scarcely space for the moorhens themselves. The moorhens are not the only birds on the pond preparing for spring. Over the last couple of weeks, a group of mallards have also been visiting the garden on a daily basis.

 

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You can see just how full the moorhen nest box is!

© Larissa Cooper

 

The staff and volunteers in the garden are just as active with preparations for the opening of the garden at the beginning of April. The laid hedges have all had a trim to encourage bushy growth which will benefit both the birds looking to nest and the small mammals which hide in the base of the hedge.

 

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One of our laid hedges trimmed and ready for spring growth.

© Larissa Cooper

 

In some of the hedges we have added new whips (the name given to nursery-grown small trees and hedge plants) to fill a few gaps. Elder and wild cherry have been added to the hedge bordering the Darwin centre courtyard and the Wildlife Garden and will be allowed to mature within the hedgerow providing nectar for insects and food for birds.

 

I love this time of year, if only it was a little warmer…"

 

Thank you Larissa


Watch out for details of our Spring Wildlife and other events on our web page.

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With the return of wintry weather there’s little chance of finding many flying insects at the moment so - when not pruning or planting up hedge gaps in the Wildlife Garden - we’ve been focusing on animals found at ground level under stones, logs, leaf litter and within pitfall traps (n.b. more about pitfall traps another time). Amongst these animals, woodlice are a rewarding group to study as some of us learnt at a Woodlouse Workshop we attended a week ago last Sunday.

 

The study day, held in the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, was led by Museum scientists Miranda Lowe and Duncan Sivell and covered an introduction to woodlouse anatomy and classification, as well as ecology and recording methods. Below are just a few of the many interesting facts we learnt:

 

Woodlice are crustaceans and are related to crabs, lobsters and shrimps. They belong to a group called Isopoda which means ‘equal legs’. Most Isopoda are marine animals but woodlice are one of the few groups of crustaceans that have adapted successfully to life on land. They live in damp dark places, beneath logs, stones or leaf litter, where they feed on rotting wood and other decaying vegetable matter, helping to recycle nutrients back into the soil.

 

Miranda described their basic anatomy, general body form, and some of the diagnostic features that help to distinguish between the different species. Woodlice have an oval flattened body which will vary in colour and form depending on the species, and seven pairs of legs (pereopods).

 

 

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Common striped woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum - their colour can vary but all have a dark head and dark stripe along their back

© Martin Angel

 

The general body form of the different genuses explains some of their behaviour – there are six types: runner, clinger, roller, creeper, spiny form and non-conformist, of which the first four only are found in Britain. When you pick up a woodlouse, you may recognise it by its body form - for example, if disturbed, the common pill woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare, will roll into a ball. Conversely, a common striped woodlouse, Philoscia muscorum, is a definite runner ...

 

 

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Common pill woodlouse, Armadillidium vulgare

© Martin Angel

 

Apart from body form, shape and colour, another useful diagnostic feature is the antennae and it is important to examine the individual sections. For example, the common rough woodlouse, Porcello scaber, has a flagellum (end section of an antennae) made up of 2 segments whereas the common striped woodlouse has a 3-segmented flagellum. We were equipped with microscopes to observe these finer details.

 

 

 

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Common rough woodlouse, Porcellio scaber

© Martin Angel

 

These woodlice are three of the five species most commonly found in gardens - together with the other two species, they are known as the ‘Famous Five’. The remaining two in this club are common pigmy woodlouse, Trichoniscus pusillus, and the common shiny woodlouse, Oniscus asellus.


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Common shiny woodlouse, Oniscus asellus

© Harry Taylor, Natural History Museum

 

The different body form and characters may explain many of the affectionate, common names that woodlice have acquired throughout the ages and in different parts of the country. Duncan introduced us to some of these names such as slater where he comes from in the north, bibble-bug, cheese-pig, roly-poly and chuggy pig. The authors of Bugs Britannica discovered 80 nicknames for woodlice!

 

Duncan also told us more about the favourite habitats of woodlice and how to collect and record the different species. We explored the dark and damp underside of logs, leaf litter and compost bins in the Wildlife Garden and returned to the lab to identify our collection.

 

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Common shiny woodlouse at home

© Derek Adams, Natural History Museum

 

In our brief foray in the bitter wind, we found 5 different species - four of the Famous Five and Porcellio dilatatus. We know there are at least seven different species in the garden in addition to the honourary woodlouse, the landhopper, Arcitralitrus dorrieni.

 

But this is just a taster of the some of the fascinating facts and details we learnt about these endearing little animals. At a later date Miranda will write about the landhopper which has made itself at home in the Wildlife Garden.

 

Thank you Miranda and Duncan

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