Spring Explodes; Firsts, and a Sudden and Brutal End

Going away from a garden at this time of the year is always risky. Every day brings dramatic new growth, flowers and of course this is when the battle with annual weeds really begins in earnest. Still another couple of days away in Shropshire, so soon after London, reminded us of just how favourable our conditions are here for growing. Even the narcissi were wilting in the heat and dry conditions near Shrewsbury, but back here, just enough rain arrived last week to kick-start new growth.

Colour in the copse with April sunshine

I moved the first ten N.’Topolino’ from the Big bag into their new position, with as much soil as clung to the roots, and watered them in once. I aim to repeat this once a week with another ten, and then see how the different batches flower next year. What I’ve noticed already is that other N.’Jenny’ moved at this stage last year, in the green, have actually flowered reasonably well in the first year after moving (perhaps 30 % flowering), whereas many bulbs planted dry in the autumn are completely blind in the second year. More thoughts on this soon, and the possible importance of worms in the subsoil affecting this.

Time for more photos though, and where to begin with so much happening? The Tulipa ‘Flaming Purissima’ are now at their peak, and are flowering just as the pink flowering currant is blooming.

At their peak Tulipa Flaming Purissima

I like trying to match complementary flower colours like this, but sometimes the seasons conspire to wreck the combination the year after you’ve carefully planted an area up. However a consistently successful mix in semi shade seems to be Pulmonaria longifolia, primrose, Brunnera macrophylla and N. ‘Jenny’, which develops over about a six-week period. I’ve added in Camassia leichtlinii which are just starting to carry the theme on, as well as the lovely blue Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’. The photo underestimates the clarity of blue in these flowers.

Omphalodes cappadocica Cherry Ingram . A lovely spring woodland plant

Since many of these need bulking up, it’ll be a few more years before the full impact develops, but already it’s a really pretty area.

The Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ are also now at their peak, and I’ve discovered a new combination to explore next year, planting T. ‘Peppermint Stick’ amongst them, or even more of a shortish white Narcissus like ‘Jenny’. Last year the ‘Peppermint Stick’ were very disappointing and distorted, and I was convinced that this was because of residual effects of glyphosate weed killer which we’d painted on ivy to help with ground clearance. I’m very sceptical of the claims by many manufacturers that these products are inactivated on soil contact. Very little is known about the biochemistry of how many early discovery weed killers work, and they really do need using as little as possible and with the utmost care. We are however pragmatic enough to accept that without them, we would have had problems creating the garden in the way that it has developed.

T. Peppermint Stick and T. Little Beauty

Along with the flowers and new growth, it’s been a great early spring for insects with the warmer temperatures of late and lots of sunshine. Since we’ve had honeybees visiting the garden over all of this period, it’s been interesting to see how they differ in their preferred flowers from other insects. Once the snowdrops had finished, they’ve been almost exclusively interested in the Hellebore flowers and Skimmias, as pollen sources. Apparently the bees from a healthy bee hive will collect about 20 kg of pollen annually which is made into a paste by the bees as a food source for developing larvae. So it obviously makes sense for bees to collect a lot at this time of the year when bee numbers will be starting to increase, from a winter base of perhaps 5,000, up to 30,000 maximum for the foraging later on. But they don’t apparently seem to be taking any nectar from the flowers, and this may explain why they concentrate on just the Hellebores and Skimmias. In contrast, the Bumblebees seem to be great nectar drinkers and whizz from one flower to the next, principally the Pulmonaria, Rhododendron and now the common wild Dog’s Tooth Violets. Perhaps this reflects the fact that they tend to get moving earlier in the year, so maybe have collected sufficient pollen by now and anyway don’t have to produce the same number of larvae as a honeybee hive (typically a maximum of 150 per nest). Or is it that other worker bees are off elsewhere collecting nectar and our garden is just visited by a cohort of pollen-junkie workers?

The ‘firsts’ seen this week, in what is turning out to be a year of ‘firsts’, is seeing this small bee visiting the flowers of Tulipa tarda, Anenome blanda and Narcissus ‘Jenny’.

Solitary miner bee with yellow Tulipa tarda pollen

A rare visitor to Tulipa tarda/daystemon flowers

I’d never seen any insects visit these flowers before, which is why I’ve been very keen on artificial hand pollination to get viable seed produced. This bee seemed keen on both nectar and pollen, as you can see from the yellow pollen sacs, and was fairly systematic in visiting flowers. It looks like a species from the Genus Andrena, which builds a mine under bare soil to produce its nest, but there are about 60 similar species apparently in the UK, so without catching it, I couldn’t be any more precise. I also photographed a couple of Bee flies (Bombylius major) on the same day feeding, hummingbird like, from Pulmonaria flowers. In fact I’ve just looked up that these bee-like flies actually parasitise the larvae of solitary mine building bees, by laying their eggs close to the mine’s entrance, and the fly larvae feed on the stored food and larvae in the bee’s underground nest. So perhaps it’s not surprising that they’re both now to be found in the garden, having found a suitable niche environment.

Bee Fly – Bombylius major Linnaeus on Pulmonaria longifolia flowers…I must refer you to the quote from the Natural History Museum site by Dr.Erica McAlister Do look it up ! Being now very suspicious of quoting anyone directly, thats all Ill say.

Also for the first time I saw a bumblebee systematically visiting primrose flowers – we have lots in the garden, but I’ve never seen a bumblebee on them before. And although it’s a regular spring visitor in the garden, it’s always a delight to see Orange-tip butterflies, and the first showed up a week ago, attracted to the white honesty flowers.

The first Orange-tip butterfly on White Honesty

Is there a more stunning blue than Meconopsis grandis? 3 weeks earlier than usual this year

Finally 3 weeks earlier than ever before the first Meconopsis grandis, which always amazes me with the intensity of the blue colour in the 3 to 4 inch  diameter flowers.

With this explosion of plant and flower growth, the birds are becoming more active. A blue tit has used a good spot under the cowshed roof to re-create a nest from the site used by a house sparrow last year, and this has involved a bit of spring cleaning, but I’ve had the impression that there aren’t as many small songbirds around this year, and assumed it was as a result of the harsh winter. We’ve opted not to feed wild birds for the last 3 years, and still seem to have an abundance in most years, with no immediate threats from domestic cats.

Out with the old , and in with the new. A blue tit removing debris from a previous nest

We had friends round for tea 2 days ago, and I mentioned this observation on bird numbers as we sat outside in sunny weather with a brisk northerly wind. Shortly afterwards an unfamiliar bird flew past below the terrace. Was it our first cuckoo, or a sparrow hawk? Cuckoos are regular visitors to our bottom fields and we already have our first 4 swallows, returning 6 days ago with their distinctive “Look Out, Look Out” alarm call as I crossed the yard first thing in the morning. Then 4 days ago the loud constant grasshopper warbler sounds, a loud background chirrrrr added to the dawn chorus mix on a foggy morning from the lower field – though I’ve never actually seen one of these small birds. (There might even still be time to listen again as a podcast to the beautiful radio four programme on cuckoos by Professor Nick Davies of Cambridge University, if you didn’t catch it last week.)

The issue of the mystery bird was resolved about an hour later as our guest was getting into his car to leave.

A pair of Pied Wagtails earlier in the week, in happier mode

A Pied Wagtail which had been collecting nest material and bobbing along the cowshed ridge tiles, flew down to the gravel of the yard about 10 yards from us, and walked around assessing whether it was safe to fly up to its nest site under the eaves with us standing there talking. There was then a dramatic flash of dark grey as a sparrow hawk flew out from the copse to the right, and plucked the little bird in its talons off the gravel before flying off down the track with it, to devour it elsewhere on the ground. Only last week I’d watched the wagtail preening itself, and observed how it only ever did so for a split second at a time, before glancing all about. Perhaps just then its attention had been focused on us and it had no chance to react to the lethal threat approaching from behind it.

A “Turn a different corner, and we never would have met” moment, and what a stressful existence to be constantly in fear of your own life – now there’s a thought, are birds capable of a ‘stress’ response over and above the hormonal ones designed to help with fight or flight?

The following day, we still had a pair of wagtails about, but the body language was different. No joyous bobbing along the ridges, just hunched still bodies, and later a solitary bird visiting the familiar perches, ridges and chimney pots with a repeated simple forlorn cry.

A forlorn mate the day after the snatch and grab attack

I’m very keen now on encouraging as many insects into the garden as possible, since they’ll provide the food for lots of birds, like the wagtails, but of course a diverse small bird population is always going to appeal to higher predator species. Apparently sparrow hawks hunt over a 2 to 3 mile radius, and in a year will take the equivalent of about 110 woodpigeons, 600 blackbirds or a couple of thousand smaller birds. My hope is that as more swallows arrive, the predator will find it less easy to have the element of complete surprise it enjoyed on this occasion, since many eyes are better than few. But for me a vivid reminder of both the complex inter relationships in any natural environment, even a garden setting, and just how tenuous a hold on life most living things enjoy.