Families of baby peacocks are on the wriggle now

Large clumps of nettles in sunny spots provide home to lots of wildlife at Spring Close.

The caterpillars of peacock butterflies – surely one of our most stunning butterflies – can be easily spotted on one of the sunny clumps of nettles at Spring Close now! Tipped off by Caroline, I went looking for them on the clumps of nettles that edge the spring. Soon at about chest height, I saw a wriggling mass of velvety black bodies happily chumping on the leaves and flowers of a large clump of nettles.

Peacock caterpillars feed en masse on nettles.

I watched as they crawled under and over each other, or reached out, waving their outstretched bodies in search of the next bit of nettle to grab onto to find another juicy bite to eat. It is possible to see them well with the naked eye, but next time I will take a magnifying glass to appreciate even better the intricacy of their colour, their punk like spikes and munching mandibles.

Peacock caterpillars with their spiky hairdo, designed to scare predators away.

Female adult peacocks take up to two hours to lay clumps of hundreds of eggs on the underside of nettle leaves. After two weeks, these eggs hatch into these voracious caterpillars. They need to eat fast as at this stage they are particularly vulnerable to predators. Once the caterpillars have sufficiently stuffed themselves, they disperse to form a chrysalis, which hangs downwards from a silken pad. Extraordinarily, the colour of the chrysalis varies according to its location, to maximise its camouflage and so its chances of survival.

Peacock butterflies – one of nature’s greatest masterpieces – will be visiting our gardens and lanes soon. Photo: Sue Pennell.

After around two weeks a magnificent peacock butterfly emerges. Soon we will see these butterflies in their fresh plumage, flying round our gardens, feeding on nectar rich flowers. Come September they will find a place to hibernate, tucking themselves away in a sheltered corner, until next March when they will emerge, feed up, lay their eggs and then die.

In the human world nettle patches often are regarded as a sign an area is neglected. In the non-human world such patches are home – providing cradle and food – to lots of creatures. When we do ‘a bit of tidying up’, the home for any one of the stages of the incredible process that results in the emergence of stunning peacock butterflies, is so easily and unwittingly destroyed.

Nettle leaves covered in peacock caterpillar frassor poo.

Now to the fun bit – the poo! The nettle leaves under the mass of wriggling peacock caterpillars mass were covered in frass, the polite word for insect poo. I suggest pointing this out to get the interest of any child – which includes us adults, or me at least! Peacock caterpillars happen to be easy to spot. However, often caterpillars and larvae are very well camouflaged. Looking out for and spotting frass then becomes key to knowing they are present, and so being able to find them.

Thanks to Richard Lewington’s brilliant ‘Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland’ (BWP) for information on peacock butterflies’ lifecycle.

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Purply-pink flowers of common mallow decorate our waysides

Common mallow, out now along roadsides

Common mallow’s purply-pink flowers are out now along our roadsides and anywhere there is a bit of rough unkept ground. I admire the toughness of this rugged plant which responds to the regular cutting it often gets by ducking low, and sticking its flowers out close to the ground, as if to say, ‘I can’t be beaten’.

My aunt, Elsie, tells me the local name in the Fens for these flowers is ‘Pick-cheese’ as their fruits have the texture of soft cheese. They are edible, I am looking forward to trying one. Nearly two hundred years ago John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’ wrote in ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’

‘The sitting down when school was oe’er,
upon the threshold by his door
Picking from mallows sport to please
each crumpled seed he called a cheese.’

I think John Clare too must have used the name Pick-cheese for these plants; some of our understanding of this poem would be lost if this local name had not been passed on to us through the generations. Thinking about this, I am struck how these simple wayside flowers give us a link to generations that have gone before us; generations who have enjoyed playing with the fruits of the mallow as a cheese. If our children no longer play this game, we are losing more than just a game. We lose a link to those who have gone before us, and a link forward to the generations to come. These rough flowers on our waysides offer us so much.

Common mallow flowers with their wide open heads are much loved by pollinators.

Common mallows also provide a feast to insects hungry for pollen. Tomorrow I will be writing about an insect with the most fabulous thighs that I caught tucking in…

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Corn buntings’ rattle of keys

Have you ever lost your keys when you are in a hurry to go out? Whoever finds them holds them up in triumph giving them a rattle. That is the sound of corn buntings’ song.

Look along the second line back of telegraph wires that run through the field next to Newmarket Road. When you see a tiny dot – that’s a corn bunting!

The very first time I heard a corn bunting was about 12 years ago as I was walking along Heath Road. I heard a rattling sound I hadn’t heard before. I looked up and saw a non-distinctive bird – a ‘little brown job’, or lbj in birders’ jargon – sitting on the telegraph wire ahead. Classic corn bunting sound and behaviour. Three years ago I was delighted to hear the same rattle come across the field adjacent to Newmarket Road. I searched along the telegraph wires that run the length of the field. Sure enough there was a small dot on the wire – a corn bunting. Each year since I’ve heard it there and last week I saw five of them, spread along the wire, right up to the old railway bridge out of the village, each guarding its territory.

Spot the corn bunting on the wire – that’s the size dot you are looking for! (Clue, middle of the highest wire, running diagonally across the top right of the photo.)

These birds are such fun to spot. They can be heard rattling at all times of day, but I think it is easiest to pick out their song in the morning or late afternoon/evening. Once you have heard the rattle, look along the line of telegraph wires that runs behind the one nearest to Newmarket Road until you see a tiny dot. You have found a corn bunting!

Corn bunting singing its rattling song. Thanks to the photographer and Wikipedia for the photo, offered for free use.

Corn buntings are actually a bit bigger than a chaffinch, about the same size as a skylark. Indeed, their scientific name emberiza calandra is derived from words meaning ‘bunting’ and ‘calandra lark’. Local names for them such as ‘corn dumpling’, ‘corn blob’ and ‘clod bird’, rather unkindly describe their shape – they are chunky, dark-streaked grey-brown birds. In short flights they leave their legs dangling – a useful ID feature.

Corn buntings are no longer a common sight. They only occur in some parts of the country – we are on the edge of their distribution on the chalk lands of Cambridgeshire. They are also a species in drastic decline, losing 90% of their population between 1970 and 2010, making them a red data book species (Bird Atlas 2007-2011, Balmer et al, BTO). Seeing them is a pleasure as they are unusual, hearing them sing is wonderful as it tells us they are breeding – right on our doorstep!

Corn buntings nest on the ground, either hidden in crops or in tangled weedy areas along the edge of fields. Reasons for their decline are mixed and vary between different parts of the country. In our area the switch from spring to autumn sowing of crops has reduced the availability of weed-rich stubble for winter feeding by these seed eating birds. They nest later than many birds, often only laying their eggs in June, with chicks still in the nest into August. This makes them vulnerable to going under the combine as harvest times have got ever earlier and also reduces their chance to have a second brood.

Considerable research is going into finding suitable measures that farmers are able to take to turn round their decrease in numbers. Fossil records of this species in Britain have been found from the last glaciation of the Pleistocene, ie from 100,000-10,000 years ago (‘A History of Ornithology’ P. Bircham, Collins, 2007). They have been part of our soundscape for thousands of years. For their and our sake, I hope we can keep it that way.

Elderflower cordial – early summer’s nectar

Large flower heads of elder are out now

Elders’ creamy, frothy flowerheads make this the stand out species of the moment, taking over from the may (hawthorn) of early May. Elder bushes and trees are all round the village. I did not know that elder is a member of the honeysuckle family; they certainly share honeysuckle’s gorgeous scent.

Elder’s gloriously abundant flowerheads

Have you caught this scent as you have passed elders? If not, I suggest you take time to bury your head in a flower covered bush; their scent seems particularly strong in early evening in warm sunshine. (A pleasanter alternative to burying one’s head in the sand, which at the moment might seem an attractive proposition!) Of course the scent is to attract insects to pollinate the flowers, so you will be joining many other creatures as you do so…

Elder flowers are perfect for picking now to make elderflower cordial, an easily made homemade drink, ideal for these hot days. The ingredients are straightforward: 10 heads of elderflowers (heads vary in size so this is approximate, I always like to add a few more); 1/2 sliced lemon, 0.7kg sugar (1 1/2 lb); 40g citric acid (1 1/2 oz); 1/2 litre of water (1 pint). You can spot this is an old recipe! Lloyds sells citric acid, behind the counter, as will most chemists.

To make: first bring the water to boil in a large pan. Add the sugar and sliced lemon, bring back to the boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Shake the elderflower heads (to remove any extra protein!) before adding to the pan with the citric acid. Boil for 15 minutes with the lid on. Leave to cool and stand overnight. Strain, either through a fine mesh sieve or a muslin bag (better), or a leg of old tights (also effective).

Bottle in sterilised jam jars. You might like to have fun making labels. Add still or sparkling water to taste to serve.

I said many creatures are buzzing round the flower heads of elder. I saw a different party of wildlife enjoying a bottle of elderflower by the stream near the Recreation Ground! They are getting up to all sorts of antics, to keep themselves – and us – amused during this really difficult time, so well worth a walk past.

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White bryony, a hedgerow scrambler

White Bryony’s lighter green leaves and long tendrils help the plant to be spotted in a hedgerow. (When there isn’t a chalk marker to help!)

I wrote some more flower names in chalk along Newmarket Rd, encouraged by comments from people who have said how this cheers their walks. As I did so a couple walking their dog pointed out white bryony to me in the hedge. I duly chalked its name on the pavement. I then decided to make this scrambling plant my species for today. I thought I would be able to write about it quickly and get started on the piles of papers that are waiting for me to sort. Instead I have been absorbed discovering more about this plant and the piles remain untouched!

The male hedgerow plant in Newmarket Road.

What do you think of this plant? I’ve taken little notice of it before, except as a nuisance in our garden as with its vigorous growth it swamps other plants. Now I know more, I will pay it more respect. For first I discovered that white bryony is our only native plant from the gourd family – to which cucumbers belong. Though my attempts to grow cucumber have failed, I recognise the similarity of the leaves, flowers and tendrils. However, there is an important difference: white bryony is poisonous – its roots and berries were used in mediaeval times to scourge people of infection in a way not to be recommended!

Rather cheesily, I also discovered that chalking its name is appropriate as, like wild mignonette that I wrote about yesterday, white bryony likes chalky soil.

A bee feeds on the flower of a male white bryony plant. Note the long tendrils which enable the plant to scramble over other plants.

I have known white bryony’s yellow-greenish flowers for some time, but I had not realised that each plant is male or female, or that the male flowers are comparatively much larger. The one I had found in the hedgerow was male. In our garden I found first another male, intertwined with a honeysuckle, then I found a female plant in a bit of hedge.

White bryony’s female flower is much smaller than the male flower (right). The split anthers of the male flower, exposing yellow pollen grains, are clearly visible.

Looking through a hand lens and a microscope. I could see how the male anthers, the plant’s male sexual organs, have split to expose multiple yellow pollen grains. This pollen is ready for a visiting bee to pick up on its legs (and body), and carry to a female plant. Looking closely, I saw how the centre of the female plant, at the base of its sexual organs, the stigmas, is packed with hairs, to make sure that as a bee visits, the pollen that it carries is brushed off onto the female sexual organs, so achieving fertilisation.

Fertilised female flowers develop berries, which will later turn red.

The result – female plants bear berries, which are green at first, turning red in autumn.

In today’s sunshine that was hot work! So my next post will be about something cooler: using the flowers from elder bushes to make elderflower cordial, a perfect drink for a summer’s day…

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Greenfinches squeak like an unoiled wheelbarrow

Greenfinches song includes an extended wheeze which sounds remarkably like a squeaky wheelbarrow wheel.

Like chaffinches, greenfinches are nesting now, holding onto their territories with a mix of calls and song, the most distinctive of which sounds like the drawn out squeak of an unoiled wheelbarrow wheel. I know as, until recently, each time I set off for the allotment with the wheelbarrow loaded with tools, I would be accompanied by a teeth jarring extended squeal and remember that once again I had forgotten to oil the wheel. Yesterday, I eventually got out the WD40 and a job of seconds was done!

I regularly hear this squeak, or wheeze as I walk round the Castle Mound; greenfinches love the thick hedges adjacent to the fields. While it sounds quiet on the recording above, the sound is really quite loud and distinctive. Greenfinches can also make a sound like a quiet version of a pneumatic drill: a rapid thud, thud, thud. This recording of a bird in Spain combines the wheeze and the thud. While any equivalences of sound require a bit of imagination, I find they help a lot when learning to pick out new bird songs.

Male greenfinch, with chunky bill and yellow wing and tail edges. Photo thanks to pixabay.

I don’t often see the greenfinches themselves, but I am glad to know they are there. Do they come to your bird feeder? Occasionally they come to ours. Look out for their greenish bodies, and yellow wing edges. As with the chaffinch, the females are drabber – more brown than green, with a thinner yellow wing edge. Like the chaffinch they have a thickset bill, designed for cracking seeds.

Greenfinches have had a hard time since 2005, when birds started to be badly affected by the disease trichomonosis, causing a massive drop in their numbers. In winter 2005, greenfinches were seen in three-quarters of gardens, in 2011, in only half of gardens. There has been concern that this disease is passed between birds at bird feeders, so there has been increased reporting of the importance of keeping feeders clean. A message we have become unfortunately familiar with ourselves lately… Their numbers are now on the up, perhaps because of a growth in resistance to the disease combined with increased cleaning of feeders. That is so why I am so glad to hear their unoiled wheelbarrow like squeak when I am out and about…

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Fast bowler song of male chaffinches

Male chaffinch with blue grey head and rosy breast. Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

Chaffinches are singing loudly now as they start to nest. I have heard them all round the village, whenever I have been near an area with grown out hedge or scrubby trees. If you learn their song, you have a head start on being able to spot them as you know what you are looking for. I hear their song and know to look at the edge branches or near the top of a scrubby bush, from where males are keeping a sharp eye on their territory.

Chaffinches’ song is loud and repeated. I was taught to think of the song as sounding like a fast bowler. A male chaffinch starts with a repeated note that gets ever faster, and ends with a flourish at the end – just like the bowler who finishes her run with the flick of her arm over her head as she throws the ball. (Or he, of course.) If you don’t already know it, listen out for it as you walk round the village and I am sure you will hear it.

Males are striking birds with blue-grey heads, with a dash of black above their bill, and a rusty-rosy red breast. Even when shaded, the double white stripe – wing bars – can usually be picked out. If you can only see a silhouette look at the shape of the bill – its stoutness shows you are looking at a finch, with a bill designed for crunching seeds.

Drabber female chaffinch, Image by Jürgen Richterich from Pixabay

As so often in the bird world, for reasons of practicality, females are drabber! A bird with a male’s colouring sitting on a nest would easily be spotted by a predator.

Chaffinches build one of the most beautiful nests of any of our bird species. Often wedged in a fork of a tree and carefully camouflaged on the outside with mosses, lichens and spider webs, the nest becomes almost invisible.

A cosy chaffinch nest decorated with mosses, lichen and spider webs for camouflage. (Taken from a tree last September after the breeding season was well over.)

I was called some years ago by a distressed villager who had been pulling at ivy on a tree and out tumbled a nest and chicks. We tried putting the nest back in the tree but it was too damaged and the adult birds didn’t return… So resist gardening that disturbs vegetation in trees, or scrubby areas until mid-July at least, any cutting back of hedges needs to wait til August.

A tiny shell fragment indicates this nest hatched successfully

Have you found an egg shell lying in the middle of your lawn? As I got this nest out to photograph, I noticed a fragment of shell at its base. If parent birds took the easy option of throwing the egg shells over the side of the nest, predators would be given a clue that a nest was above. Instead, parent birds carry off the shell, and discard it away from the nest. Hence that find of an egg shell in the middle of your lawn – its a good sign – somewhere nearby a nest has safely hatched chicks. So back to the fragment of shell I saw in the chaffinch’s nest. That is the tiny scrap of shell that the chick will have pecked out with its egg tooth, and too small for the parents to carry away and discard. People who monitor nesting success – which provides important information for why a bird species is doing well or not – look for a tiny bits of shell like this in the bottom of a nest – a great sign that the nest hatched successfully. All that singing from the male bird, all the sitting from the female, has resulted in chicks. Hurrah!

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Bugles standing witness

I am being fanciful, plants have their own being and place in this world, however finding these small but elegant dark purple flowers standing amongst long grass and glossy buttercups in the churchyard I cannot help but think they are keeping a quiet witness to the lives and deaths amidst which they grow.

Bugles are one of the first wildflowers I learned the latin name of, ajuga reptans, meaning ‘to drive away’ (a hint of its healing properties) and ‘creeping’. I was out surveying a wood with the Beds, Cambs, Northants Wildlife Trust a classic place to find this shady, damp loving plant. Since, I have discovered that they are often planted in shady places in gardens, where not much else will grow. Do you have them in your garden?

I went out this morning to have another look round St Mary’s churchyard. To my delight I immediately found a patch of ground ivy, germander speedwell – yesterday’s focus blue-purple flowers – growing with bugle, near the new, neatly tended ashes’ burial area.

Once again, I was tripped up thinking, ‘Is that ground ivy, or is it bugle’? At first glance their flowers look similar. Bugle however stands more upright. Bugle’s flowers are packed closer together. Bugle’s flower petals appear to have a touch of yellow, actually that’s the anthers peeping out. The leaves are very different. Ground ivy leaves are scalloped, bugle leaves are gently wavy edged.

Wandering off the main path to the church I found so much more. Left uncut, buttercups, oxeye daisies, red clover – always a good sign of wildlife rich grassland – are all growing. Suddenly I caught my breath. I saw a whole patch of bugle growing, invisible from the path, a startling sign of exquisite nature thriving in what could so easily regarded as unkempt, neglected grass.

I suggest this – and other churchyards with uncut areas – are a great place to have a wander. We will only discover why such areas are important – and a delight – by getting to know what grows in them and watching and listening to the other wildlife that also enjoys them. What we don’t know, we don’t miss. You won’t harm the plants by walking around as long as you take a bit of care where you put your feet. Remember, last year this place would have been cut and these flowers would not have existed…

I’ve been challenged by doing Kelly Holmes’ core session workouts each morning, Nathalie’s encouragement keeps me going. Kelly Holmes keeps saying you can push yourself as hard as you like, but start somewhere… If you haven’t done this before, a bit like I am finding my core (!), you might like to challenge yourself to count all the different species you find, to add to the challenge count the different grasses as well. How about adding the butterflies, hoverflies, bumblebees?

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Blue-purple flowers in shady places

From looking upwards at the leaves of trees, I’ve been looking down at my feet, in shady places under trees. So many flower species are blooming now I am going to give you two in one go, one purple, one blue – ground ivy and germander speedwell – and follow that tomorrow with a third, bugle. Each are only a hand span high, if that and at first glance could be confused.

Ground ivy is a common garden ‘weed’, with a propensity to spread rapidly by sending out runners that root. How much time do you spend pulling up this species in your garden?! Its latin name is glechoma hederacea – maybe the sound of that alone ought to lift this species into the ranks of respected garden plants! However, its common names – creeping Charlie, or hedge maids – perhaps keep it down the ranks! Hedera is latin for ‘ivy’, after its ivy-shaped leaves. I hadn’t realised it belonged to the mint family and is aromatic. Next time I find some, I will be giving it a good sniff. Like other mints, it is edible and has been put to all sorts of healing uses over the ages. I’m not about to advise any here but I find it salutary to remember that many of our medicines have origins in plants. Their survival is important to us as well as to themselves and the creatures that depend on them.

Clumps of germander speedwell are like blue hazy mirages alongside shady paths.

I saw clumps of germander speedwell, like blue hazy mirages in the long grass, on the edge of the footpath, that runs left (NE) just after the railway bridge as you go out of the village towards Exning. Possibly speedwells’ habit of growing alongside paths gave these plants the mediaeval name of speeds-you-well – travellers would pin a flower to their coat for luck. Of the speedwells out in flower now, germander speedwell is the most upright, with new flowers coming out above the one that has just ‘gone over’, so forming a spike.

Germander speedwell has stalkless leaves in pairs up the stem.
Germander’s four petals are so heavenly blue, in Wales they are called ‘Christ’s eye’.

To distinguish germander from the other speedwells, there are several things to look at. First, note how the leaves are in pairs going up the stem and have no stalk. Second, the flowers are strikingly blue, with a stunning white eye. I’m told that the flower is so heavenly blue, in Wales it is known as Christ’s eye. Now for the clincher. One of the things I love about Germander speedwell is that it has a feature that cannot be confused: its distinctive hairy legs! Only this speedwell has two rows of hairs, one up each side of the stem. Maybe this could become a new Lockdown fashion?!

Germander speedwell has a row of hairs up each side of its stem – a possible new lockdown fashion?

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Swifts, swallows and house martins, the sky’s fast fliers

Do you keep a note of the first dates each year that you see a particular bird species? I have often wished that I did, so this year I’ve have made a start. My first swift sighting was 1 May, out along Factory Road. But it wasn’t until last week, as I walked between the Co-op and Costcutters, that I saw heard my first ‘party’ of swifts: they ‘screamed’ overhead, swooping in circles through the sky, their black, precision wings enabling them to turn, dip, angle, at high speed.

Often people ask me how to tell swifts, swallows and house martins apart. All arrive quite late in the spring as they come from the middle to southern Africa. They all swoop through the air, as they feed on insects. They often will come down low to water, as that is where there are a lot of insects.

Swifts are sooty brown but look black against the sky and have stumpy tails.

As we often see these birds only when they are silhouetted against the sky, I look at their different shapes to tell them apart. What they are ‘up to’ and the ‘noise’ they are making – I don’t think these birds have much of a song – is also helpful.

Swifts are sickle shaped and black all over. They fly the highest. They scream! They very rarely sit, except to go to their nest. So if you see birds sitting on a telegraph wire, they won’t be swifts.

Adults have long tail streamers, whiteish body and red under their chin.

Adult swallows have tails with long streamers, juveniles have streamers, but shorter. Even in flight, it is often possible to see their whiteish undersides and catch a glimpse of red under their chins. Their upper body is a beautiful glossy deep blue. Swallows will sit on beams in stables or on telegraph wires and ‘chatter’.

House martins are white underneath, and show a block of white on their upper tail as they sweep past.

House martins are slightly smaller than swallows and have more angular shaped wings – think of a triangle. The white on their upper tail is often clearly visible.

House martins often nest under the eaves around Felsham Chase area

If you see them nesting, that will also give you a clue about which bird you are seeing. House martins, as their name suggests, build their mud nests under the eaves of houses. I’ve noticed in Burwell that they love nesting on houses in the Felsham Chase area, but don’t on what look superficially similar houses up Newmarket Road. Please let me know if you understand why!

Swallows build their mud nests in outbuildings and stables, near to horses and cattle, or water, where there is a good supply of insects to feed their chicks. They don’t seem bothered by people being around – they just get on with what they have to be doing, which is getting food to their demanding chicks! Once we are allowed back to Wicken Fen’s visitor centre area you will be able to see them nesting around the café area, on the beams of the boat shed and sometimes the porch of the cycle hire.

I love seeing tiny chicks’ heads appearing above the mud wall of their nest as their parents arrive to feed them. And just think, the adults have flown all the way from Africa to have their young here in our village. That’s quite something..

Swifts nest in roofs, but under the tiles, so if you are lucky enough to have them, you will hear their chicks, but not see them… more of that anon.

Make silhouettes for your window – you can cut out swift, swallow and house martin shapes out of black paper and stick them to a window. As well as having fun making your own ‘flying bird parties’ this will help stop birds from flying into the window – they are more able to see that there is a pane of glass there.

With thanks to the RSPB community blog for the illustrations.

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