How you can fight the Beast from the East in your garden

NATURE NOTES: You can turn your garden into a vital refuge from the cold snap for local wildlife, writes PETER ALFREY

Bird feeders with a variety of foods will draw in different birds, here including a rare tree sparrow, plus a house sparrow and a great tit

The Beast from the East is taking a fierce bite at our local wildlife, just when they are at their most vulnerable.

The end of winter is always a tough time for wild birds. The supply of winter seeds is at its lowest and many birds have to hang on in there until the new reserves of plants and insects are supplied by spring growth.

This week’s cold weather makes it more important than usual to be providing food for the garden birds. Gardens have become a vital lifeline for many species of birds over the last few decades and changes in the countryside have meant there is better feeding opportunities in suburban gardens than anywhere else in winter.

Providing a variety of different foods – such as peanuts, mixed seeds, fat balls and meal worms, and also providing water – will be welcomed by birds. The variety of food provided will help draw in different species of bird. A feeder offering nijer seeds, for example, will prove a winner with colourful goldfinches.

And it is highly recommended that squirrel-proof feeders are used.

Offering the right food will attract the colourful goldfinch to your garden

In the garden, once the snow and ice clears, now is a very good time to start doing the planting and pruning ready for the warmer months, especially if you want to do some nature-friendly planting. It’s a good idea to get any planting of trees and shrubs done before spring arrives. It’s also a good idea to get any major tree and shrub pruning done during the dormant season.

Wildlife will always welcome any efforts to garden with nature in mind. There are several species of shrubs and trees that can be planted this time of year that will also provide winter interest for years to come.

Hazel’s bright yellow catkins brighten up a garden, and provide nectar for insects

Planting pyracantha and cotoneaster will produce an annual berry crop that is not only attractive addition to any garden, but also provides food for winter birds. Planting hazel will not only produce a good display of late winter catkins, but will also provide early nectar for the few insects that are on the wing this time of year – such as the elusive winter and early moths and also the common Quaker (named after the drab clothing that Quakers used to wear).

Spring can start as early as February with the first snowdrops, already spotted in some Croydon parks, and with crocus and daffodils not far behind.

The unfolding of spring is actually quite a protracted affair.

When planting in the garden it make sense to choose various plants that appear at different times of year to make sure there is constant and dynamic interest. Here’s a few plants to look out for in the garden or local park during the next couple of months that are indicative of various stages of early spring to mid-spring. The timing can vary, but the sequence is generally the same.

Snowdrops were out in some Croydon parks as harbingers of spring, before the snow came

Early March (even February in mild winters): winter hellibores, snowdrop, crocus, daffodil, primrose, cherry plum, purple plum, blackthorn, dog violet, sweet violet, speedwells, colts foot, lesser celendine and viburnum tinus. Also Willows coming into bud.

Mid-to-late March: Cherry plum and blackthorn in flower. Hairy bittercress, charlock, forsythia, red dead nettle, first cultivated Tulips, willows are in catkins, cultivated violets.

Early April: begonia, purple plum (flower), ground ivy, bluebells, magnolia, horse chestnut (buds bursting), hawthorn (leaf), berberis (leaf), willow (leaf), box elder (catkins), cherry (flowering), white dead nettle, wood anemones, thyme, rosemary, heather and photinia in flower.

Late April: The first hawthorn, apple and pear flowering, honesty, cow parsley, wallflowers, red valerian, choisya, green alkanet, Jew’s mallow, ramsons, bluebells, forget-me-nots. Oak, plane, robinia and poplar could be coming into leaf in advanced years.

The gulls will miss Beddington’s land-fill

The glaucous gull – the bright, white bird – migrates to Beddington from the high Arctic

Until this week’s cold snap, overall it’s been a mild winter which is good news for birds and wildlife as it means conditions had not been too tough. In tough winter weather many birds have to relocate and many are pushed into migrating, often resulting in unusual birds turning up in unusual places. As this winter was so mild, unusual sightings have been few and far between.

However, the twite that arrived at Beddington Farmlands in November was present all month and there were two open days in January to see the bird that proved popular with many admirers.

It’s been a good month for owls with barn, little, long-eared and tawny owls all present.

The spectacular little egret has become a common sighting on the River Wandle

Late winter also means the maximum number of gulls feeding on the landfill. Among the 15,000 or so gulls present, there are rarer species such as Iceland, glaucous, Caspian and Mediterranean have been found.

This year could be the last winter for gulls, as the landfill is due to close as the controversial incinerator comes online and diverts waste from landfill to incineration.

According to John Birkett, who collates Croydon wildlife sightings, the highlights in the last few weeks include several records of little egrets in places such as South Norwood Country Park and over gardens in Shirley. Perhaps they are spreading out from the Wandle.

A lapwing at South Norwood Country Park was the first record since 2016.

A marsh tit in Kingswood on January 1 was another unusual sighting.

Please send us your favourite nature photo of the month for a chance to win a monthly competition. Please send edited jpgs to Peter Alfrey.

Your Questions: Questions regarding identification of something you have seen or questions about wildlife gardening or day trips to nature reserves in Croydon and Sutton can also be sent to Peter Alfrey. We will publish a selection each month.

For previous Nature Notes and other articles by Peter Alfrey, click here

And for more information about local wildlife, checkout:

Beddington Farmlands
Croydon Wiki
Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers
Little Oak- Wildlife Gardening Experts
and Peter Alfrey’s own birding notebook

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