It all started with some poop.
Taking a quick stroll round the garden on March 23rd, just hours before the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, I noticed some unfamiliar droppings beneath the bird table. And near the apple tree. And indeed, just about everywhere.
I say “unfamiliar” as I am well acquainted with the sight of cat poo in the flowerbeds. But this was different. At first, I leapt to grand conclusions. Fox? Badger? I reeled my imagination in – surely this was more likely to be something smaller and less conspicuous…mice? Oh no…not…rats?! Dammit.
After a quick look on Google Images for animal poo (who doesn’t enjoy a dirty internet search?), I narrowed it down to the two most likely culprits – hedgehog and yes, rat. My heart yearned for the former, my head pessimistically told me to expect the latter.
There was only one way to be sure. So, later that evening as darkness fell, I kept a lookout on the lawn. And around 8pm, who should turn up huffing and snuffling in the grass but a lovely hedgehog. I was so excited (and perhaps more so, relieved) that I immediately ordered some hedgehog food online, determined to make my new spiny friend feel at home.
It was only a few moments later that the official announcement of lockdown came through. After being told we should only go to work if “absolutely necessary”, I thought my order for hog biscuits would never be honoured – surely there was nothing essential about the delivery of snacks for prickly garden visitors? As it turned out, “absolutely necessary” was entirely subjective (along with the rest of the lockdown rules, it later emerged) and everyone was still free to go to work if they fancied it – so my hedgehog nibbles arrived a few days later.
Lockdown meant I was now working from home and unable to visit my regular nature haunts – places like Slimbridge, Steart Marshes, the Forest of Dean and the Avalon Marshes were all closed or out of bounds. The itch to find, observe and document wildlife would have to be scratched in a different way.
The timely arrival of the hedgehog inspired me to pay much closer attention to the garden and I decided to treat this small space like my own mini nature reserve.
I bought a camera trap (christened the HogCam) to record night-time visitors, and spent what would have been my morning commute watching the comings-and-goings at the bird feeders – much more pleasant than a rushed breakfast, exhaust fumes and road rage.
The usual suspects continued to show up – blue tits, wood pigeons, goldfinches, dunnocks…
But as spring sprung, and the birds began their annual breeding rituals, there were some new and surprising visits in store.
Birds and babies
Supposedly, great spotted woodpeckers are now regular visitors to gardens, but this doesn’t detract from the excitement when you see one for yourself. I “spotted” the first one not long after lockdown began.
Initially only visiting shortly after dawn, but soon progressing to regular appearances throughout the day (though still easily spooked with the slightest movement), the thrill of seeing this exotic-looking bird pecking at my fat balls did not diminish. Each new sighting was as compelling as the first.
The only thing that could have made this more amazing was if a juvenile woodpecker turned up too – which it dutifully did a few weeks later. Identified by its red cap, the young woodpecker seemed a lot less bashful than its (assumed) father, spending much more time at the feeder.
Starlings are not an uncommon sight in the skies around my house, but they’d never really come into the garden. This all changed during lockdown, as huge gangs of them suddenly appeared, taking nibbles from the bird table, along with worms and leatherjackets from the lawn. They carried their loot away in their beaks rather than eating it, suggesting that they were feeding chicks in nests somewhere nearby.
Suspicions were confirmed shortly after, when a whole gaggle of fledglings started turning up for breakfast. Causing a tremendous racket, the young birds acted like pubescent teenagers, demanding the undivided attention of their parents whilst squabbling with their siblings and cousins.
These starling colonies cleaned up the offerings on the bird table in record time. Even a 12kg bag of buggy suet nibbles didn’t last long with this lot about. It was a joy to watch the youngsters progress from being fed by the adults, to tentative – but not quite successful – attempts to feed themselves (how comical it is to see a bird lift a seed in its beak then sit rather gormlessly, not sure how to progress to actually swallowing it…), through to finally being the boss of the bird table, fighting off all-comers for sole access to the treats.
Is there anything cuter than the fluffy ball-on-a-stick that is a long-tailed tit? Yes – a baby long-tailed tit! And these were in plentiful supply during lockdown.
Long-tailed tit flocks seem to run to a timetable. Whilst other species came and went from the garden all day long, the long-tails only turned up once a day, like a feathery bus service for a village in the middle of nowhere. Their arrival was unmissable and unmistakable, accompanied as it was by their characteristic peep-peep-peep as they landed on the feeder – usually all at once.
Blue tits – probably the most regular visitors to the garden – also turned up with babies in tow. The demands of parenthood had clearly taken their toll on one poor soul who was now completely bald.
Other visitors included juvenile goldfinches, robins, dunnocks and blackbirds, as well as a lone siskin that briefly made use of the nyger feeder – a bird never seen before in the garden and (at time of writing) never seen again. And for those who enjoy a good apex predator, there were regular flypasts from the local buzzard.
The discovery of a hedgehog was exciting enough, so imagine the exhilaration of finding other mammalian guests in the garden.
The HogCam revealed a succession of interesting nocturnal appearances. The hedgehogs (I soon discovered there were at least two), were turning up most nights, but they weren’t alone.
A small rodent was a regular caller to the scraps under the bird table. At first sight, I was horrified to think there was a rat in the garden after all, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a cute and rather lively mouse – a welcome surprise given the number of cats in the neighbourhood.
And then after a couple of weeks, I reached what felt like the pinnacle of my attempt to create a garden wildlife refuge – a handsome fox strutted about in front of the camera, sniffing around the hedgehog food before jumping over the garden wall.
Daytime brought its own surprises. Despite having put out bird food for years, there had never been any noticeable squirrel action in the garden – until now. Thanks to shows like Springwatch and 1980s’ lager adverts, a squirrel’s gymnastic quest to reach an awkwardly placed feeder is almost a cliché, but that didn’t make it any less entertaining to witness first hand.
Lockdown lessons learned
The rich variety of wildlife that I’ve recorded in my fairly small garden during lockdown has taken me by surprise. I haven’t even mentioned the frogs, toads, bats, bees, butterflies, hoverflies and other flora and fauna that I’ve spotted during this time.
Have the quiter streets of lockdown encouraged these animals to visit places they would not normally venture? Or has my enforced continuous presence at home given me the time to actually notice what was there all along?
Whichever is true, I have realised there is no need to travel far to experience exciting encounters with nature. Add some wildlife friendly features to your garden and pay close attention – you never know who might be dropping by.