Nature Notes

Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THIS week is National Nestbox Week when the BTO encourages us all to install nestboxes in our gardens. With our modern building practices and general passion for tidy gardens we have actually severely cut the places birds used to find a home – little cavities in walls, roofs or guttering, dead trees complete with enticing holes and tangles of bushes and brambles. However, there’s a whole range of products available carefully designed to attract different species: terraces for colonial nesters like sparrows, open-fronted boxes to suit robins or, if you’re very lucky, spotted flycatchers, big roomy accommodation for owls or kestrels and many more. You can go on line to find details of how to send for an information pack to get you started.

I usually try to clean out my nestbox in good time, since birds pair up and start looking out for likely sites well before the nesting season begins. It’s important to kill any lurking parasites, and I do this with a douche of boiling water. The annual clearout also gives me a chance to look at last year’s nest – usually blue or great tits’ work, and to marvel at how two small birds gathered such a quantity of material – moss, feathers, fur, grasses – and then wove and shaped it into a perfect cup using just their beaks and body shape. I can check on the relative success of the season – are there any eggshells or, worse, any tiny mummified corpses? Alas, this year no such research is necessary as the box was unoccupied.

Birds’ nests are not the only nests to be cleared out. My stepson had to dispose of a last season’s wasps’ nest cunningly lodged against a light baton in his garage. No danger – the population die at the summer’s end except, of course, the queen. She will be snugly ensconced somewhere hibernating until spring when she’ll start a new colony elsewhere. Usually wasps’ nests are spherical, like Chinese lanterns. I remember coming across one in the middle of a Welsh wood. It hung from the lowest branch of a small tree – and it was huge! In the dim greenish light of that dark wood, it glimmered a ghostly white – beautiful and strange.

The Kettering nest was awkwardly sited so billowed out to fill the available space. It was grey and brown like over-cooked meringue and packed with hexagonal cells each of which would have held an egg or larva. A wondrous paper construction, and all built by insects from chewed up wood and saliva.