A Driving Instructor's Blog

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OK. It looks like I’m going to have to wait until Autumn to replace the camera. We were back online for about a week, then the camera stopped streaming properly. It appears to be broken, though I can see it on the local network. However, I will be able to produce clips from my recorded files.

In the meantime, we have chicks! All of the eggs have hatched.

The resident bird damaged the aerial on the original WiFi camera while roosting in there over the winter (she’d actually torn it off). So rather than risk that again I decide to go for a fully wired system, and that took a little time to install. It would probably have been quicker if I’d have got off my backside and done it, instead of just thinking about doing it, but what the hey.

In the end I was lucky. I put the new camera in precisely one week before we noticed a lot of twigs under the box. It took another several weeks for me to get round to running cables and drilling holes in the shed and garage, and finally draping cables I have yet to fix properly.

Watch this space (and the updates below).

Updates:

30 March – Early this morning she deposited her first egg. Apparently, they lay one egg a day (more or less) for about two weeks up to around 10-12 eggs, then start to incubate them. While they are laying, they spend all day outside eating because each egg takes a lot of energy to produce (it weighs about 20% of the parent), then roost with it at night. The eggs remain viable unless they freeze.

31 March – A second egg laid. She comes in to roost around 6pm-ish each night. The male must be sleeping somewhere else.

1 April – Now, a third egg.

2 April – Four eggs. Bear with me while I sort out the stream above. I can see everything on my home network, but I was fiddling and have broken something in the software!

3 April – A fifth. And she came back in at about 8am and covered them all up, which suggests that might be the last one.

4 April – No. Now we have a sixth. She is visiting the box more frequently during the day.

5 April – Now, a seventh egg. She’s been in and out all day with fluffy stuff to create the nest bed.

6 April – We have an eighth egg. She is has been incubating them, so I guess that one was the last.

7 April – No. One more. We have nine eggs now.

8 April – She’s now incubating them and the male has been in for the first time to ‘feed’ her. He’s not very good at it yet.

9-13 April – Not a lot of drama right now. The male only came in that one time, and I am assuming (from what I have read) that his work begins properly when the chicks hatch. The female spends over 80% of her time on the eggs, going out occasionally for a short while presumably to feed. She turns them over frequently during the day.

I have a mealworm feeder on order which I will put up away from the nest box to try and help her.

14-19 April – I’m expecting the eggs to start hatching anytime now. She pops out for a few minutes to feed – and she is using the mealworm feeder I set up on the tree about 5m away from the box – and then comes in to incubate. Periodically, she turns the eggs.

21 April – At around 3.20pm the eggs started to hatch.

22 April – And I was able to confirm that at the moment we have nine chicks, so all the eggs hatched.

Incidentally, I always wondered where the egg shells went after birds hatch. The mother eats them immediately (certainly in the case of Great Tits, anyway). And the male is now coming in regularly with grubs and caterpillars. He feeds the chicks himself sometimes, though he also passes food to the female and she feeds them.

29 April – I wondered what happens to the poop the chicks produce. Given that the they’re being fed huge grubs and insects throughout the day, there must be a lot of it. This is why there is a a clean nest, and it is fascinating to watch.

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Overview

I’ve been having problems with my birdbox camera. I’ve been having problems with my Ring doorbell. I’ve also been playing around with various CCTV cameras.

I’ll get on to the birdbox issue in a moment, since it is the primary subject of this article. But for general background:

  • my Ring Doorbell issue is to do with the fact that Ring is discontinuing the desktop app, which I can access instantly from my PC when I receive a proximity alert or a doorbell push to see who is there. Ring’s intended alternative is a web-based approach, which is slow, and which also requires you to log in via 2FA if you’re inactive for more than a few minutes – and by the time you have, whoever there is gone. So I formulated the idea of building my own video doorbell.
  • my CCTV interest developed from the Ring issue, and from learning a heck of a lot about IP camera networking from my birdbox camera, which gave me ideas for a home CCTV system.

Let’s not worry about how these all fit together in the history timeline of my mind, because I’m not sure myself! Right now, my birdbox camera is my main focus.

I installed a birdbox last year, fitted with a Wi-Fi HD camera. After some messing around to get a decent Wi-Fi signal to the end of the garden it worked brilliantly, and I got a night time resident roosting Great Tit within days of me putting it up. I had high hopes of a nesting situation come the Spring. Whenever the bird came in (and I will now refer to it as ‘she’, which will make sense shortly), she would often jump up behind the camera to pick off insects. That was no problem until the one time she did it and the signal disappeared, because she’d pulled the Wi-Fi antenna off the top of the camera.

I didn’t want to risk another Wi-Fi camera – my relationship with Wi-Fi is quite rocky at the best of times, and having a small bird disable it just added to that – so I decided to fit a wired one. After I’d put it in and run the network cables and PoE switches to the house, I had the video feed back. And as I’d noticed a lot of small twigs underneath the birdbox by the time I did that, I discovered she’d built a nest (when roosting over winter, she just settled on to the wooden floor). I was able to see the camera feed on my home network, and also able to stream the RTSP feed to the blog (and anyone else) so they could watch it live. It worked for about a week, and then the RTSP feed was lost – possibly a result of updating the camera firmware, or maybe because of a camera fault. I’m still pushing that side of things with the supplier, but at least I still have live access on my home network, as she has now laid eight eggs and is incubating them.

The problems with the camera set me off on my usual thought process, which amounts to this: well, OK. I can buy another one of those. But what if I made one myself?

In the case of a camera, and if it were based on something I had programmed myself, I would have full control over operation and repair. But what about the size of it? Those off-the-shelf birdbox cameras measure about 40mm x 40mm x 23mm, so there’s no benefit in building one the size of a refrigerator. But the Raspberry Pi Zero (a full computer) measures about 65mm x 35mm x 2mm, and a HD camera for it is even smaller, though it adds maybe another 5mm to the overall thickness. And I’ll cover this later, but a suitable add-on which gives PoE and wired networking capability adds a further 30mm to the thickness, so hardware-wise you could have a camera system which is only 65mm x 35mm x 40mm, and in a case perhaps 75mm x 80mm x 57mm (I already have one identified). That would fit in the birdbox easily and also give internal room for cables. The only issue from then on would be software.

The beauty of the Raspberry Pi is that people out there have already done brilliant things, and the software they produce is usually available for free. And software for creating ONVIF camera applications does exist.

However, many of those solutions have too wide a scope. In my case, I just want a raw ONVIF camera with no frills (other than a microphone, which might be problematic on a Pi), so I can get the fastest and highest quality image, then monitor it using Surveillance Station on my NAS. I can fiddle with motion detection – if I actually need it in my birdbox – within Surveillance Station. My approach is to keep things simple, and then build on that if I want bells and whistles later. But the DIY projects online try to put all the bells and whistles in right at the start, and many are likely to be superfluous to most people. Motion detection within the camera, which is one such popular feature, ramps up the processing overhead immediately.

This project will be similar to the Kneeling Chair one I did some years ago. I will add instalments as I go along. But right now I have several of these – the Pi Zero, cost £13.50:

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One of these – the PoE HAT, cost £22:

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I have this on notify for when it becomes available – it’s an autofocus HD camera for the Pi (though the actual one I end up using might change), cost £23:

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And this is the case I am likely to use, which all of the above will easily fit into – cost £25:

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Obviously, I will need a few more bits and pieces – some of which I already have – and I haven’t mentioned IR Cut for night vision at this stage. However, I will detail those as I go along. And the worst part is always getting the finished product – building an ONVIF device will be relatively easy, but mounting it compactly in the case so it can be used in a practical setting will be the hardest task of all, since I will have to drill that case and then make sure it is still at least water resistant when I mount it Inside the birdbox. It won’t get wet in there, but it will be subjected to variations in temperature and humidity.

Update: Hold on. I just had another idea for the birdbox camera issue. I have discovered that even though a typical CCTV camera looks like a Danish salami, most of the inside is empty space and the camera assembly is a section at the front.

I just tested one I have strapped to my second birdbox and it works. So if I disassemble it and re-package it into a suitable case, I will have a ready-to-use birdbox camera with all the bells and whistles of a CCTV camera.

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It’s nearly the new Spring in the UK, so now is the time to start gearing up for your watering and feeding rota for 2022. Bear in mind that we’ve had a wet few months, so water probably isn’t your immediate concern. However, warm weather is being forecast for as early as mid-April, and the ground can dry out quite quickly with hungry trees drinking up water. My tree is started showing new catkins by mid-March, and small new leaves have now started to appear. The following is the original article…

Our Silver Birch in June 2017Back in 2014, when I originally wrote this, our Birch tree suddenly began to produce a lot of yellow leaves in mid-June. After a lot of research I managed to figure out the possible causes and the remedies. That was the purpose of the original article.

However, 2018 threw up a new issue. It turned out to be the hottest year on record, but even before we found that out people will remember how hot it was, and for how long it stayed like that. My tree once again began to show a few sprays of yellow fairly early in the season.

The article becomes popular each year, firstly in late Spring and early Summer, then again later in the season closer to Autumn.

In 2014, I identified the following as likely causes of premature yellowing:

  • nutrient deficiency
  • iron deficiency
  • manganese deficiency

After the 2018 heatwave, I further identified lack of water as a major factor. With hindsight, it may have also been a factor in that 2014 season, but nothing compared with 2018 for prolonged heat and lack of rain.

When I first experienced yellowing back in 2014, I initially thought my tree was dying. Googling for an answer was pretty much useless, because most of the technical advice is American and focuses on the Bronze Birch Borer (a beetle that feeds on white birches), which isn’t known outside of  North America. But somewhere in among the advice, I came across a simple comment – and I don’t recall where I saw it now – that made a lot more sense.

In a nutshell, premature yellowing/leaf drop can be caused by nutrient and iron deficiencies in the soil. This comes about over a period of time as fallen leaves are swept up each year and sent to the tip, so none of the nutrients are returned to the soil. Consequently, the soil becomes depleted of them.

Birches are ericaceous – lime-hating – plants, and prefer a slightly acidic soil. As such, you need to feed them using ericaceous fertiliser. I first used Miracle-Gro solid fertiliser, intended for Azaleas and Rhododendrons (also lime-hating), but a couple of years later switched to Doff liquid feed so I could use it in my Access Irrigation Static Dilutor. I also got hold of some Maxicrop Seaweed Extract, which is also liquid, and watered that in at the same time.

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My original problem showed itself as canary-yellow leaves, either in sprays, or randomly dotted throughout the canopy. On closer inspection, some of the leaves looked like those in the photograph here.Leaves suffering from chlorosis

This is known as chlorosis. Leaves are usually green because they contain chlorophyll – and chlorophyll is green. Chlorophyll is what allows plants to convert light energy into sugars that they can use as food through the process called photosynthesis. Plants use iron to produce chlorophyll, so if there isn’t enough iron in the soil the tree can’t make enough chlorophyll, and you get yellowed leaves. The tree compensates for being hungry (if it hasn’t got chlorophyll it can’t make food for energy) by going into shutdown and shedding those leaves. And you may also find that new leaves are small and misshapen when chlorosis is the issue.

You can easily treat chlorosis using sequestered iron (or seaweed extract). Being ‘sequestered’, the tree can suck the iron up and use it right away. A longer term solution is to use iron sulphate lawn feed, which also slightly acidifies the soil over time.Close-up of leaves suffering from chlorosis

I also bought some manganese to water in the first time, but I am not sure how relevant that was. I used it for a couple of seasons, but stopped. Each year, I simply feed the tree once or twice a month between March and September using fertiliser and seaweed extract.

Note that none of these problems are confined to Silver Birches. All trees and plants can be affected by nutrient deficiencies, and you simply have to deal with the problem using the appropriate, easily purchased treatments.Close-up of our tree's leaves in June 2017

In that first season, a single application of fertiliser stopped the leaf drop almost immediately. Once the already-yellow leaves had fallen, the tree remained green until Autumn, and even threw out some large new leaves and fat catkins. It obviously liked what I had done to it, and I continued doing it from June until September every few weeks.

Everything was fine until the hot summer of 2018. You might recall that the prolonged heatwave began quite early, and by the end of June I was again noticing a few sprays of yellow. I wasn’t a nutrient issue this time – I was feeding the tree regularly – but I’d already guessed the hot weather might have something to do with it, and a bit more research showed that heat stress in trees is a real issue, and Birches are highly susceptible to it.

It turns out that lack of moisture in the ground combined with prolonged high air temperatures causes trees – and especially Birches – to become stressed, which again triggers them to go into emergency shutdown by shedding leaves.

My research provided two options for getting water down to the roots (which fortunately, in the case of Birches, is quite shallow). One involved hammering at least half a dozen hollow spikes into the ground around the tree and dripping water directly down to them. I decided against that on the basis that a) the ground was already as hard as iron plate, b) anything which sounds so simple (i.e. hammering a hollow plastic spike into the soil) was going to turn into a nightmare of split plastic, only being able to get part way down, and discovering chunks of bedrock I didn’t know were there, and c) having these things poking out of the lawn would look bloody awful even if I got them in (and even worse if they only went in part-way). The easier option was to commence heavy-watering immediately – basically, to run the sprinklers for hours at a time every  night.

That method fixed the problem in less than a week.

With hindsight, it is quite possible that lack of moisture was a contributing factor back in 2014, and my feeding routine would have dealt with that automatically (though I did have chlorosis). But in 2018, it was definitely just the result of too little moisture around the roots.

So, to summarise. If you experience premature leave-yellowing, the very first thing you should do is water like crazy. Don’t worry about over-watering too much – Birches like wet soil, which is why they grow near streams. Just don’t turn your garden into a swamp. While you’re doing that, buy some ericaceous feed and seaweed extract, and get that into your soil as soon as possible (how much depends on how big your tree is).

Can you rescue leaves which have turned yellow?

No, probably not. I suppose that chlorosis could be reversed if you caught it early enough, but if the leaf is dead and the tree has triggered its shedding mechanism, you’re going to lose them.

The important thing is that by feeding and watering the tree you can stop any further yellowing – and believe me, the first time you do it the effects will be quite noticeable within a short time.

Do you have to keep treating the trees?

Yes. If you don’t, the problem just comes back once the tree has used up what you’ve fed it, especially if you bin the leaves again the following autumn. Huge trees will suck up all the nutrients and water, and if you’re raking up and binning the leaves each year (or if the soil is dry and there are no prolonged periods of rain) nothing gets returned to the soil.

How often should you feed?

Treat them once or twice a month from March until September. And water regularly.

Can heat and drought cause them to lose leaves?

Yes. If they are stressed you may get them dropping leaves. In extreme cases the leaves can go brown and the tree can even die. It’s a good idea to water them deeply during hot, dry periods. Once or twice a week should be enough, though more frequently won’t hurt if the dry period is prolonged.

Remember that after a period of drought (or prolonged dry weather) it needs an extended period of rain to wet the soil again, especially deep down. A few heavy downpours won’t do it, and you will still need to help things along.

Will a Birch recover from drought?

It depends on whether the drought killed it or not. A reader wrote to me in 2018, mentioning that his tree had lost its leaves, and I advised that the only thing he could do right then was to feed and water – and hope for the best. He wrote to me in 2019 to tell me the tree had started to rock in the wind, and that a tree surgeon had subsequently declared it dead, and had had to remove it. Apparently, the roots were rotten.

There’s no way of knowing if it was just the drought that did the damage. The tree may have been weakened by not feeding and watering over previous years, and the drought was just the final nail in the coffin. But the 2018 heatwave certainly caused problems.

Is there any other way to deal with the problem?

You have to get nutrients and iron back into the soil. And you need water in order for the roots to be able to access those nutrients. Yes, you could use your own mulch or bought compost, but obviously this is not so attractive in a normal garden (removing it is what got you here in the first place). It would also take longer to have an effect. But it would still work, given time.

When do Birch trees normally start to shed their leaves?

In the Autumn! In the UK this is from around September-October, and the onset varies up and down the country. It often seems triggered by a noticeable drop in night time temperatures. The leaves will begin to fall from that point – very lightly at first, then increasing as the yellowing spreads.

Why do birch trees drop leaves so early?

They don’t. They drop them in Autumn, like all other trees which shed their leaves each year. If yours is turning early, you may have a problem.

How do you apply these treatments?

You make up the required solution as directed on the pack, then water it into the area specified. I use a combined watering/fertilising system, which I have written about separately. However, you can use a watering can and hosepipe/sprinkler as necessary. Note that if the ground is dry, a watering can won’t get the nutrients down to the roots, so a heavy watering is essential.

Why are fallen leaves sticky?

You’ve probably got greenfly! Specifically, the birch aphid, Euceraphis betulae. They feed on the European Birch, Betula pendula, and they increase in number during warm and dry weather. Aphids secrete honeydew as they feed, and that’s the sticky stuff you’re seeing. Apparently, you can get different species of greenfly that feed on specific trees.

You can kill them with a soap/water mixture, though no one has ever been able to tell me precisely how you apply that to a 20 metre high tree. And the same goes for any chemical method relying on direct contact. An alternative solution is to introduce predatory insects – something that eats aphids. The best one is the Ladybird larva, and you can buy them online. There are other predatory insects you can buy, too.

My tree is losing branches and twigs

If the tree is weak then it is understandable that twigs and small branches might fall off. Once they’re stronger this will stop. In any case, if it is windy, a few dead twigs are bound to fall off. It’s just nature – and birches also have a fungus which can cause small twigs to die and fall.

In the Spring, Crows can also be a problem if they’re nesting nearby. They are very, very selective in their choice of twigs for the purpose, and they will tear off dozens until they get the right one. It’s nature, so we don’t worry when they’re using ours for their twigs.

When do birches start to show leaves?

In Spring, obviously, but the precise date varies depending on both the tree and the weather. In 2019, they were about a month earlier than 2018 in the UK. Mine is usually showing leaves sometime during April each year.

I’ve got catkins but no leaves

Someone found the site in April 2018 with that query. You’ll probably find that in a couple of weeks you’ll have lots of leaves. As I have said in this article, I start feeding mine from March onwards. Leaves start sprouting a week or two earlier than my neighbours’ trees, and the foliage on mine is usually much denser. The catkins often come before the leaves.

Are the leaves changing early this year?

This was a generic search term used to find the blog in mid-July 2017. The short answer is no, they are not – not in July in the UK, anyway. They change towards the end of September in the UK.

Do Weeping Silver Birches lose their leaves in Autumn?

Yes.

When do Silver Birch leaves go all brown?

They don’t. The leaves should go yellow and fall off in the autumn.

I had quite a few visitors from this search term in 2018, and when I looked it up it seems that extreme cases of chlorosis and heat stress can result in leaves turning brown (see this supplementary article). It could also be a disease or infestation which you could treat, but the tree itself might also be dead – especially if it has been having any of the problems I mentioned above over previous years. Best to call in the experts.

Does this advice only apply to Silver Birch trees?

No. Chlorosis can affect many plants, and lack of nutrients is a universal issue. You might need a different fertiliser to address any nutrient problem, but iron will likely fix chlorosis. Lack of water can kill virtually any plant.

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A SparrowhawkI woke up this morning to be met by a very unusual and rather exciting sight just outside the kitchen window.

A bird – I believe it is a Goshawk [correction: A Sparrowhawk, so the article title is now a bit off] – had caught a pigeon and was eating it. It was quite macabre, since the pigeon was not dead and remained alive for at least 30-60 minutes while the hawk tore it to pieces and ate it. The whole business took a couple of hours, and it ate everything except the feathers.Another angle (Sparrowhawk)

Then, just before dusk, I looked out of the window and saw it – or at least another bird – had caught another pigeon. This one was dead, and it flew off with it this time.Sparrowhawk close-up

It was a magnificent creature, though – nature is both cruel and beautiful – but it was so close I got a couple of dozen great pictures from the open bathroom window and through the kitchen window glass.

We do get the occasional evidence of a major incident in our garden (which is quite large) judging from the explosion of feathers we see. I’ve mentioned before that I came home one Sunday afternoon some years ago and saw a large bird of prey eating a pigeon at the far end of the garden.

But I hope it sticks with a pigeon diet and leaves the smaller birds alone.

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It might be the same bird as the first time, but this time he stayed for almost ten minutes – some of the time above the camera (you can hear him tapping with his beak). He gave the box a really good going over before finally leaving.

I’m hoping that such a long check means he likes the place.

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