Mammals and amphibians
Hedgehogs have declined in number in the countryside in recent years, but gardeners can help them survive by leaving gaps at the bottom of fences so that they can have the run of more than one garden. They usually hibernate in winter, but occasionally wake in warmer weather. The best time to see them is at dusk or night, when they feed on small creatures such as woodlice, slugs and earthworms.
Common pipistrelle bat
Some bats live around houses and gardens and may be seen with their fluttering flight as they search for moths and other insects at dusk. The smallest and most common of our bats is the pipistrelle. Like all our bats, they hibernate in winter, however, they may be induced to wake by a spell of warm weather and hunt, even in daylight. They roost and hibernate in sites such as roof spaces and wall cavities.
A familiar sight in gardens and parks, bounding across the ground or dashing up trees, showing their long, bushy tails, grey squirrels are active in daytime and, as they do not hibernate, can be seen all year round. Their food is mainly seeds (they are frequent visitors to bird feeders) and nuts, such as acorns. They will often bury food in gardens to retrieve during times of shortage in the winter.
These well-known amphibians are declining in many places, so garden ponds are a very important refuge. They produce eggs, known as frogspawn, as early as February. In spring and early summer the emerging tadpoles metamorphose into tiny frogs by growing legs and losing their tails. Fish will eat tadpoles in a pond. Out of the water, frogs eat insects and other small animals, and need suitable areas of vegetation around the pond.
Molehills are more familiar than the small mammal that makes them. Spending most of their lives underground, moles hunt worms and other invertebrates living in the soil. Its famous hills are the spoil from a series of tunnels that it digs with its strong flat “hands”. Its eyesight is poor, but its hearing and sense of smell is excellent, and they are most often spotted in early spring.
Robins stay with us all year round, but males and females defend separate territories in winter. In early spring you can see them posturing and displaying as pairs come together and sort out their breeding territories and drive away rivals. Robins’ song can be heard at any time of year, even in the depths of winter.
One of our best-loved songbirds, with a loud, melodious, fluty song in spring. The male is sooty black with a bright yellow bill, while the female is dark brown with slight spotting on the breast. Some pairs will start breeding in early spring and several broods may be produced in one year. They are best spotted in parks and gardens, where they nest in dense shrubs.
Hanging a feeder of sunflower hearts in a garden in winter is likely to attract this acrobatic species. Garden nest boxes can encourage them to remain and nest in spring. They will only have one brood each year, but there may be eight to 10 young in a brood and a single family of young needs around 1,000 caterpillars a day to survive.
A colourful addition to our gardens, goldfinches only began visiting them relatively recently, encouraged by the hanging feeders that contain sunflower hearts and niger seed. Outside the nesting season they are usually seen in flocks but in spring their pretty tickling, buzzing song is a good clue that they may be setting up territories.
A woodland species that visits gardens, the most familiar song of a great tit is a repetitive “tea-cher, tea-cher”, but some individuals have been known to have more than 30 variations. Usually, it is the older birds that have larger repertoire, hold larger territories and even produce more young. This bird will visit a garden for food in winter and may stay and nest in spring.
This is a comparatively new visitor to gardens. When not nesting, small flocks of long-tailed tits roam woodland, countryside hedgerows and parkland but they have also discovered the benefits of garden bird feeders. There is a chance they will stay and nest in dense shrubs in some gardens, where they build a beautiful domed structure out of moss and lichen, held together with spiders’ webs.
Famous for their murmurations in winter, when thousands gather at dusk and perform spectacular aerial displays, starlings also visit gardens to feed and bathe, and sometimes nest, in spring. Many traditional nest sites in roofs have been blocked, so providing suitable nest boxes can really help this species. Their wheezing song contains mimicry of other countryside birds and even man-made sounds such as car alarms.
The house sparrow has been associated with humans since early times, and have always nested in our roofs and fed on grain, scraps and other easy pickings. However, times have changed and sparrows are fast disappearing from places where they were once common. The reason is not fully understood, but you can help by providing suitable nest sites – especially “sparrow terraces”, as they like to nest in close proximity to one another.
Bugs, butterflies and moths
Common blue damselfly
Smaller than dragonflies, damselflies rest with their transparent wings folded back along their very thin bodies. The common blue has an electric blue body with black bands, though females are duller blue or brown. Eggs are laid in the water and the greenish-brown larvae are underwater predators. When they are full-grown they will climb a plant stem and moult into their adult form. They’re easy to spot around almost any body of water and are a regular garden visitor from April to September.
Not the most popular creature with gardeners, this is the largest snail normally found in gardens. It usually emerges to feed at night, and by day hides along the base of walls and in empty flowerpots. During winter, early spring and also in dry periods in summer it can be found in a resting stage, the mouth of the shell closed with a seal of dried mucus.
Common shiny woodlouse
Woodlice are an important part of the garden community, feeding on decaying leaves and wood, and helping to recycle them into the soil. They are not very active in the late winter, but they are still there, living in the leaf litter, compost heaps, under dead logs and other dark places. Several woodlice live in our gardens; commonest is usually the shiny woodlouse, with a smooth, shiny shell and rows of paler spots.
Everyone knows ladybirds – for these little beetles are many people’s favourite insect. Gardeners value them (and their triangular grey larvae) for eating large numbers of aphids. You may see their familiar bright-red bodies on a sunny spring day, sitting among the dead flower heads where they have hibernated. There are several different types of ladybird, and not all of them are red, but this is one of the most common and can be identified by its colouring and seven spots.
A dark spider with striped legs and white marks on its back forming a cross, this arachnid is responsible for the familiar orb-shaped webs in gardens. These webs are slung from a network of long strands of spider silk and trap insects in sticky droplets on its spiral threads. The centre is not sticky and here the spider will sit and feel the vibrations of its struggling prey.
Out of several species of lacewing, this is the one that tends to enter houses and other buildings to hibernate, and so may be seen when it emerges. It has a slow, fluttering flight on long, transparent, lacy wings. The body is pale green, the eyes golden, and the antennae (or feelers) are long and slender. Later in the year the lacewing larvae, with their long, pointed jaws, are voracious predators of aphids.
Dark-edged bee fly
With its plump body covered with golden hairs, this delightful insect looks remarkably like a bee. In fact, it is a fly (related to the hoverfly), with only a single pair of wings. By rapidly vibrating these it can hover motionless over the flowers, such as primrose, on which it feeds. The wings have dark front edges, and the very long mouthparts are held straight out in front of the head.
These well-known bees, which we see in our gardens visiting flowers, are the workers, with light and dark brown striped bodies taking nectar and pollen back to their hive. With these they will raise further broods of workers and produce honey to provide for the colony for the winter. In this way, unlike the other social bees, the whole colony will survive into the next year winter. They are best spotted near flowers, especially sunflowers and spring blossom.
Despite its appearance, this large bee is not a bumblebee. The female, which is all black, will lay eggs and produce young, but these do not form a colony of workers. You may see it flying low and rapidly over early flowers. It is especially fond of lungwort, whose tubular flowers it can penetrate with its long tongue.
One of the earliest bumblebees to emerge in the spring, the largest individuals are queens, which have passed the winter in hibernation. They will soon make a nest, perhaps in an old mouse hole, in which they will lay eggs and found a new colony of workers, which are smaller and appear later in the year.
This is another large bumblebee which emerges in early the spring. It is fairly easy to identify by the band of pale yellow around the front of the thorax, and another near the front of the abdomen, as well as its white tail. All early bees rely on a supply of nectar and pollen from spring flowers and this species has a short tongue, so it needs flowers with short tubes to reach the nectar, such as white clover and comfrey.
It is a myth that butterflies are short-lived. The peacock hatches from its egg and feeds as a caterpillar in summer, then in autumn the butterfly hibernates for the winter. It sometimes enters our sheds, garages and even our houses, where its tightly closed wings hide its bright colours. On warm days in late winter it emerges from hiding and searches for a mate – and the whole annual cycle can starts again.
A striking butterfly with a red, black and white pattern, this is a migrant to the British Isles, arriving here from Europe in spring and summer. Until recent mild winters, it generally could not survive our winter weather and, so the population depended on each year’s new arrivals. Once arrived they breed, and their eggs are laid on nettle, which becomes the food plant for the caterpillars.
This is another butterfly that depends mainly on nettles and has become far less common than it once was. It is a species that hibernates for the winter and appears in spring ready to produce the next generation. There are two generations a year, with the second hibernating. It is one of the butterflies frequently seen “sunning” itself in a warm patch of sunshine – perhaps on a garden path or a bench.
Butterflies have been declining in the countryside in recent years, but the holly blue is seen more frequently. Perhaps because of warmer summers, and possibly because of the increase in its food plants, this small, powder-blue butterfly is a regular spring visitor to many gardens. It lays its eggs on holly and ivy, while the adults visit garden flowers such as honesty.
White plume moth
This amazing insect is one of the largest of a group known as plume moths. It has a white body and long, feather-like wings. At rest the wings overlap and the overall shape resembles the letter “T”. It flies in June and July and visits hedgerows, wasteland and gardens. The small, pale green caterpillar, with spots and tufts of hairs on each segment of its body, feeds on hedge bindweed.
Garden carpet moth
A small, delicate moth with a pale grey colouring and dark brown markings, the garden carpet settles with its wings spread and is well camouflaged on a fence or wall. It is frequently attracted to lighted windows. The tiny caterpillar is green and feeds on garlic mustard, horseradish or shepherd’s purse, which is a common garden weed. It flies from May to October and produces up to three generations a year in the South, though fewer in the North.
One of the more common larger moths, yet seldom seen unless attracted to a lighted window or found resting on a wall between May and August. The adult is a very pretty pink, while the caterpillar is green turning to brown, with large “false eyes” towards the front of its body. This “eye” pattern can be enlarged and is a defence against predators. The food plant of the caterpillar is willowherb, but adult moths can be spotted on honeysuckle flowers.
A marbled-patterned moth with a characteristic “y” shape on each wing, adults may be seen hovering in front of flowers as they feed at dusk. It is a migrant, arriving each year from southern Europe or even North Africa in early summer – sometimes in very large numbers. The bluish-green caterpillar is a “looper” – raising the centre of its body as it walks – and enjoys feasting on nettles, clovers and bedstraws.
The RSPB Handbook of Garden Wildlife is out now (Bloomsbury, £14.99)