Stay alert!

by Iolo Williams, 30th May 2020

With Iolo back on our screens in Springwatch, we find out what he’s been up to during lockdown and what you could be spotting too

One of the questions that will undoubtedly be asked by grandchildren for generations to come is, “what did you do during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic?” Well, not a great deal as it turned out!

I am writing this whilst still in lockdown. After four weeks of restricted movement and no work, the natural world has provided a welcome distraction from this dreadful pandemic. Indeed, one of the few positives to come out of this difficult period is the fact that so many people have reconnected with nature.

Never before have I heard so many local people commenting on the birdsong, spring flowers and abundance of bumble bees this year. The walks along the country lanes around the village have been a joy, not least because the council hasn’t cut the verges, allowing the wildlife to flourish.

Blessed by sunny weather for weeks on end, the local walks have been full of colour and natural sounds. Carpets of lesser celandine, primroses and dandelions were soon followed by garlic mustard, greater stitchwort, dog’s mercury, dog violets and ground ivy, all taking advantage of the abundance of light falling on the verges before the growing hedgerow leaves shaded it all out.

The insects also gave a terrific show this spring. Big, fat queen bumblebees were everywhere, all frantically gorging on pollen and nectar after their overwinter hibernation. Buff-tailed, red-tailed, white-tailed, tree and common carder queen bumblebees were a common sight in and around my garden, not only feeding, but also searching for old vole holes and hollow trees where they could build a nest.

The long period of lockdown gave me an opportunity to brush up on some of the commoner local solitary bees. Tawny mining bees, red mason bees and ashy mining bees all enjoyed the fruit tree blossom and the dandelions on my lawn, as did an impressive variety of butterflies.

Pale yellow brimstone butterflies were the first to appear, quickly followed by peacocks, commas, red admirals, beautiful male orange tips, small tortoiseshells, green-veined whites and small whites. All of these butterflies, bees and a whole host of other wildlife has greatly benefited from the local councils not cutting the verges and I sincerely hope they are left alone to flourish once the world returns to normality once more.

I wonder how many of our readers noticed a small, hovering bee-mimic called a bee-fly in their gardens this year? Throughout the sunny days in late March and April, I had several dark-bordered bee-flies using their unfeasibly long proboscis to feed on the nectar and pollen of primroses and dandelions in my garden. I have seen them before, but never in such numbers and never at such close quarters.

I was also able to indulge in a passion that was instilled in me as a very young child by my grandad (‘taid’) and my mother: nest finding. I have always been more fascinated by finding nests than by birdwatching, although I have never indulged in egg-collecting which was a common pastime amongst children when I grew up.

Whilst walking the lanes, I always search every ivy clump, bramble patch and holly bush in search of nests that have been tucked away out of sight by the owners. I make every effort not to disturb the birds, and I often sit and watch from a hidden location as they go about the laborious business of nest building. 

The commonest nests in the hedgerows around the house are those of the blackbird, a grassy, cup-like nest that’s usually positioned in thick bushes at around eye level or below. I’m lucky in this area because we still have a good population of song thrushes, as witnessed by the number of nests I have found this spring. Although very similar to blackbird nests, the cup is made of mud.

The best nest around here, and anywhere in the country for that matter, is that of the long-tailed tit. These small, rugby-ball shaped structures are made from moss, hair, wool and spiders’ webs with lichen stuck on the outside for camouflage. The spider silk allows the nest to expand as the chicks grow and nests in more exposed sites can contain up to 2,000 feathers!

One of the most difficult nests to find is that of the robin. These birds tuck their homes out of sight in hedge banks, ivy-covered walls, outbuildings and even old kettles and coat pockets if they’re left outside long enough. I watched one male carry nesting material to a post above an ivy-clad wall but as soon as he saw me, he dropped the dried leaves and began to sing whilst staring straight at me. It took two further watches from a well-hidden position before I finally found the nest.

I must add that all my nest records are passed on to the British Trust for Ornithology where they are used to help bird conservation and I would urge anyone else who regularly finds nests to do the same. Of course, it goes without saying that disturbance should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Keep safe,



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