October began in my South Shropshire garden with large numbers of birds returning to the bird feeders as night time temperatures dropped. Long-tailed tits, goldfinches, nuthatches and woodpeckers joined the regular chaffinches, blue tits and great tits to feed on sunflower hearts, nyjer seed and peanuts. Around the garden jays visited daily, usually clutching an acorn from the oak woodland next door, which was promptly buried in the lawn somewhere. A single chiff chaff was seen on the 1st of the month.
Daytime temperatures were good during the first week of the month and several red admirals were still feeding in the borders and around the vegetable garden, where Verbena bonariensis and cosmos were continuing to flower. Single-flowered dahlias were also attracting butterflies and bumblebees, the latter also visiting late flowering borage.
As we moved into the second week of the month there was little change in the mild temperatures. A treecreeper was seen several times foraging on the bark of our oldest apple tree which has deeply fissured bark covered with lichens, and several coal tits joined the other species at the bird feeders. The orchard, planted when we moved here twelve years ago, has matured quickly and many of the trees have a huge crop this year. Plenty are left for the birds especially the winter thrushes and bluetits were already feeding on the soft early varieties such as Discovery.
One new moth species was recorded for the garden in the moth trap this month – the stunning Merveille du Jour - one of my favourite species. Five individuals of this species were caught on the night of the 12th/ 13th.
Hurricane Ophelia hit us with a vengeance on the 16th but fortunately there was no damage to the garden or to local trees. Temperatures continued to be mild but variable through the third week and there was a little rain at times. The local willow tit returned to the feeders this week after a two week absence and was seen daily. With so much bird activity in the garden it was inevitable that a sparrowhawk would become a regular visitor. This large female began to make frequent visits, often perching on the bird feeders outside my office.
Towards the end of the month small flocks of redwings and fieldfares began to visit the garden, firstly to feast on the holly berries in the hedge which quickly disappeared, and then for the large quantities of apples in the orchard, both in the trees and on the ground. The mature hawthorn trees on our garden boundary also provided these birds with food and as usual they were noisy and quarrelsome. Frosty nights at the end of the month brought even more of these thrushes, plus one mistle thrush – not seen here since the spring.
Signs of mammals in the garden this month included hedgehog droppings in the cut meadow and fox tracks through the long grass in the orchard. A weasel was seen briefly running past the French doors of my office and towards the end of the month a wood mouse was watched every evening, feeding on a small bird feeding tray outside the kitchen door which is on the second floor. This means that to reach the food on the tray the wood mouse has to climb up wooden cladding and then the stems of a Clematis in order to reach the food! Once there it was oblivious of the outside light and us watching!
The month ended with a very heavy frost overnight on the 29th/30th but daytime temperatures were still high enough to tempt a red admiral to sunbathe on the house wall.
This weeks garden butterfly is a species we may see in our gardens at two separate times of the year and it can be very confusing! It's the Holly blue - a strong flying little blue butterfly that is found only in the south of the country and is most likely to be seen in your garden if you have growing nearby both Holly and Ivy, its two caterpillar food plants. It is a species that has good and bad years in terms of its numbers and this natural cycle is thought to come about as a result of the presence of a parasitic wasp which preys on the Holly Blue butterfly' tiny caterpillars.
Although the wasp clearly plays a part in the fortunes of this small butterfly it is likely that there are also other factors involved in the fluctuations in its numbers every year.
There are two broods each year and the first Holly Blues are generally seen in April and May. Forget me not is a favourite nectar source for these adults, as are bugle and buttercup. These first brood adults mate and lay their eggs on the tiny developing flowers of Holly or occasionally on the flowers of the native shrubs Dogwood or Spindle. The caterpillars eat these flowers. They grow and pupate and the second brood of adult butterflies appear in July and August. The females of this Summer brood lay their eggs on the flowers of mature Ivy and the tiny bright blue butterflies can sometimes be seen flying high up around the tops of trees or walls where the Ivy flowers are situated. These summer adults feed on thistles, water mint and sometimes the sticky sap found on certain trees. The caterpillars that result from this brood develop and spend the Winter as tiny pupae, ready to emerge in the Spring sunshine the following year.
Holly Blues take nectar from rather limited sources, but in your garden planting Wild Marjoram, Bugle, Water Mint and Forget-Me-Not could encourage them, as might the flowers of Ivy . The adult butterfly is sometimes confused with the Common Blue but Holly Blue is paler with fewer markings on the undersides of the wings, which are light blue with small black spots.