Friday, March 31, 2006

Warmer week

After a week of warmer, frost-free weather the two seedlings have started to grow more quickly but no new plants have appeared.

The more southerly of the two has small bumps, slight serrations, on the leaf edges reminiscent of some Hebes (see picture), but I don't think it is one of those. The other might be a sorrel or dock.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cold spring

The first day of spring was cold and there was a frost overnight putting a thin skin of ice on the pond and freezing the soil surface. Despite this I spotted a tiny springtail, Entomobrya nivalis I think, making its way along the southern rim. As the name 'nivalis' (of the snow) implies, this species is not too troubled by cold.

A few strands of common feather-moss, Kindbergia praelonga, have appeared towards the north end of the windowbox, probably dropped by a bird gathering nest material. I shall have to wait and see if this takes root.

Birds also scuff about in the topsoil making small trenches and hollows which I normally leave as they are.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Bird & fly

Animal life for the first time in weeks, though it is still only just above freezing all day. This morning there was a robin perching on the edge of Wbx and, during one of my close scrutinies, I saw a very small black female non-biting midge, probably Limnophyes minima, though it flew off after a few seconds so I shall never know.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Frost again

Sometimes after a frosty night a spike of ice appears like a shark's fin above the water in the windowbox pond. At other times the water just freezes flat in the normal way. I have no idea why this is, but wonder if it is to do with the speed at which the water freezes.

The long, chilly winter is holding things back. The only signs of life are the two tiny seedlings, both of which have minute green central blobs as true leaves start to form between the cotyledons. Constant freezing and thawing does not affect them at all.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Warmer and wetter weather has moved in from the west. The soil in Wbx is no longer frozen, but a lump of ice still floats in the pond making it look like some black cocktail.

A curious moat-like impression about 1cm deep has appeared right round the pond. It seems improbable that this has been made by a bird or any other creature so I think it must be an effect of the recent frosts, though I do not understand what the mechanism could have been, or why it has only just shown up.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A view of the windowbox

Someone asked for a picture of the windowbox described below, so here it is.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The story of the windowbox so far

For my second entry on this web log I have covered the history of the project to date.

On 4 November 2005 I bought a windowbox 63.5cm x 24cm, 0.1524 square metre (top inside dimensions) and two bags of John Innes No. 3 compost (the latter because it is 'ordinary' fertile soil, but sterilised ) at the Blackbrooks Garden Centre in Sedlescombe. These cost £11.97.

Helped by my grandson Jamie I set up the windowbox on some upturned wire crates so that the soil level was 65cm (26 inches) above the ground in a well-lit position to the west of the office shed in the garden. We filled it with the compost and put a dead elder branch in the centre, a pond made from a black plastic half litre mug to the left of this and a small rock of local sandstone to the right.

On 7 November 2005 I removed the elder branch (that did not last long) and replaced it with a 15cm mean diameter log of grey sallow, Salix cinerea, buried upside down in the soil so that about 17 cm of wood projected. This created a much more stable feature that will not fall over as it decays and is colonised by flora and fauna. The log was sawn from sallows being removed during the restoration of Oaklands Pond on the Pestalozzi Estate across the valley. The bark was left intact, but I hatcheted deep lines across the top of the log with a heavy bush knife to allow faster water penetration and therefore decay.

The first record from the windowbox was of a female non-biting midge, a brown and yellow Gymnometriocnemus brumalis found dead, floating on the surface of the pond. As this is a terrestrial breeding species, it would not have been attempting to lay eggs in the water.

It is very curious that this should be the first arrival as I have been interested in this species since 1959 and came across it on my parents' farm at Robertsbridge. I have seen it many times since and written odd bits and pieces about it for publication. If I had an insect talisman, or familiar, this would be it.

Birds come and sit on the sallow log and, although I have not yet seen one, there is ample evidence of their presence from the droppings they leave behind. Always too there is a scatter of leaves, mostly alder buckthorn as there is an old tree nearby, but also oak and hawthorn. Some have blown into the pond thereby started to enrich the water so that there will be some nourishment for the first colonists.

On 22 November 2005 there was a blackbird hopping about on the earth and the windowbox rim. Interestingly it pecked repeatedly at the earth as though there was something to eat there but, so far as I can see, it is absolutely bare apart from a few autumn leaves (currently being left where they lie).

The soil has been hard frozen during recent frosty nights and the pond covered with ice. The similarly sized pond in another project down the garden does not freeze like this unless the weather is much colder because it is buried in the ground and is in a sunnier position. This indicates that the microclimate in the windowbox is relatively harsh.

On 23 November the small psocied. Ectopsocus briggsi, was found on one of the fallen alder buckthorn leaves lying on the surface of Wbx's soil. An even smaller chalcid wasp was settled on the terracotta-coloured plastic rim of Wbx the following day - one of the difficult things to identify. The next day a robin perched on the sallow log in the morning, chirping and shaking its wings, pehaps because it was irritated by another robin somewhere. On 26 November there was one woodlouse under the sandrock. It proved to be the rather scarce Porcellionides cingendus, once a mainly western British species that has been spreading eastwards rapidly in recent years.

The foll,owing day I put a seedling wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, into a small bonsai pot and buried this up to its rim in the front left hand corner of Wbx. This breaks my rule of no deliberate introductions, but I will not put it down as a record and, through being in a pot, it remains only semi-attached to the project and will not reproduce itself. My plan is to train it so that it casts a little shade over the sandrock and my other excuse is that I just like it there.

Yesterday's Porcellionides cingendus woodlouse was joined the next day by a couple of raw salmon coloured pigmy woodlice Trichoniscus pusillus. It is quite a climb for these small creatures and they must make their way up the wire cages that support Wbx like steel workers on skyscrapers. The Mohawks of the invertebrate world.

On 2 December a vine hopper, Empoasca vitis, settled like a small green seed on the south edge of the box. These are very common about the garden in winter, sheltering in evergreens and similar, but always active in milder weather. The following day another small chalcid wasp floated on the pond. I lifted it out on my fingertip and, after a few moments,it shook its wings and flew off. There was an owl fly too, a Psychoda species, standing on the meniscus of the pond. I left it there and when I returned, it had gone. Clearly they are able to walk on water.

On 16 January 2006 a tiny plant of moss was detected close to the eastern rim in the northern half of the windowbox. I suspect it had fallen off a bird, rather than grown from a spore. Nevertheless, it looks as though it may persist. Over the last few weeks the soil surface has been distrubed from time to time, probably by birds, leaving small hills and hollows which I have left as they are.

On 18 January 2006 the first seedling appeared, a tiny dicot in the northern section of the box near the eastern rim, but closer to the central log than the moss discovered two days ago. Then, on 1 February 2006, a second, even smaller, seedling appeared just in front of the sandstone rock. Eight days later I found and orange-scarlet berry lying on the earth near the pond. It was a fruit of stinking iris, Iris foetidissima, presumably dropped by a visiting bird. I do not expect it will remain there long and it raises the question of whether to record it for the species list. I think the answer is 'yes', on the basis that it is, unlike a fallen leaf, a complete, living organism with the capability of growing to maturity and reproducing itself.

On 10 February 2006 nearly half the water had disappeared from the pond when I looked at Wbx in the morning, so I topped it up with rainwatwer. There had been a hard frost overnight and some thirsty bird or birds might have found this as one of the few available drinking points if others were iced over, though the pond normally freezes when there are subzero temperatures.

I also spotted a small, bright green disc near the sallow log. This turned out to be a single plant of duckweed, probably lesser duckweed, Lemna minor, transported no doubt from the nearby pond by a bird. I broke, or bent, one of my own rules by moving the plant a few centimetres into the pond as it would have died on the bare earth. Let's call it conservation management. Again, as with the stinking iris seed, it was a good record as it was a whole organism capable of reproducing itself.

The iris berry had disappeared by 19 February and the duckweed plant was twice splashed out of the pond by heavy rain. The first time I returned it to the water, but I could not find it on the second occasion so the colonisation attempt has been unsuccessful. However, a third seedling has appeared to the north west of the sallow log. A small crescent of green too timid to unfold above the surface of the soil. The weather has turned cold again, so this is slowing growth, but the other two seedlings look in good shape and may be establishing root systems rather than developing overground.

The cold carried on until I set up this web log on 3 March 2006 and little happened in the interim, except for a day when quite a bit of the soil surface was disturbed by a visiting bird which almost destroyed the two surviving seedlings.

Friday, March 03, 2006

What is a wildlife windowbox?

Make or buy a windowbox and fill it with a sterile compost (in theory this should not contain weed seeds). Add a few features - a piece of wood, a stone, a small pond - then wait. Like Surtsey, the volcanic island that appeared from the sea off Iceland in 1963, animals and plants of various kinds will arrive of their own accord. Resist the temptation to plant anything, but feel free to manage whatever does grow in any way, to water the box when necessary and so on.

I have positioned my box on a stand half a metre off the ground, though you can put them anywhere they will fit out of doors. They are, however, probably less vulnerable if they are off the ground. They can even go on an outside window ledge,if you have one, or a roof.

Soon you will have a small wilderness, a mini nature reserve that will change over the years.

In this web log I plan to describe what happens in my window box in our garden near the village of Sedlescombe, East Sussex. It would be good if others did the same elsewhere so we could compare notes.