A Bit of a Panic

Dear Readers, when I was wandering through Cherry Tree Wood here in East Finchley a few weeks ago, I was fascinated to see that some of the trees had these ghostly nets in them. The silk is similar to that of spiders, but because it is protective rather than used to catch insects, it’s opaque and surprisingly strong. In the midst of the tent above I could see frass, the black droppings of caterpillars. Some little critters had obviously been having a lovely time eating the new leaves. It didn’t take me long to find the culprits – the caterpillars of the bird-cherry ermine moth (Yponomeuta yvonemella).

Bird cherry with webs of the Bird Cherry Ermine moth (Yponomeuta yvonemella)

These caterpillars will be gone by the end of June, giving the tree plenty of time to recover. After all, compared with some webs,  this was a mild one.

Photo One from http://www.growsonyou.com/photo/slideshow/157704-bird-cherry-tree-ermine-moths-larvae/all

A dramatic bird cherry ermine moth web in Essex (Photo One)

There is definitely safety in numbers – when the caterpillars all emerge at the same time it makes it less likely that an individual larva will be eaten. Furthermore, even the most diligent blue tit won’t want to foul her feathers with too much of that sticky stuff.

The caterpillars will pupate briefly, and then this rather elegant moth emerges. You can see how its resemblance to a winter-coated stoat gave it its name – just think of the white, black-spotted fur that lines the ceremonial robes of mayors and royalty. I always think that every black spot was once the tip of the tail of a small predator, and count how many died to make each outfit, but maybe that’s just me.

Photo Two by By David Short from Windsor, UK - Bird cherry ermine (rp), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63856375

Bird cherry ermine moth (Photo Two)

There are several other species of ermine moth in the UK, the commonest being the orchard ermine (which feeds mainly on hawthorn and blackthorn) and the spindle ermine that munches through (predictably) spindle. None of them are any threat to the plant, and their populations will naturally fluctuate according to the weather and to the availability of food and the number of predators.

As I was perusing the ermines and getting a few photographs, I was accosted by some young women who were anxious for their children.

‘Are these those dangerous caterpillars that I heard about on the news?’ they asked.

I was able to reassure them. The ‘dangerous caterpillars’ are the young of the oak processionary moth, a European mainland native that has been imported (just like ash dieback) on young trees for landscaping. These insects have been spotted in several places in West London, and they are considered a problem because they are ‘urticareous’ – that is, their hairs are likely to cause dermatitis and even asthma if inhaled. The clue to their behaviour is in the name: the processionary moth caterpillars follow one another around en masse. Their nests tend to be on the branches and trunks of oak trees, never among the leaves as with the ermine moths. You need to be in close contact with the caterpillars for them to cause any harm. The Forestry Commission are treating the outbreaks that they know about (probably with huge doses of biocides) and if you spot any actual Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars you can report it here.

Photo Three by By Kleuske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19940595

Oak Processionary moth caterpillars having a trot around a tree trunk (Photo Three)

I do wonder, however, how many perfectly harmless caterpillars have been killed as a result of all the quasi-hysterical news reporting of the oak processionary moth. The story has all the ingredients for a media storm: invaders from overseas: a danger to children: an attack on that very bastion of Englishness, the oak tree. Many people have a fear of insects, and most of us have a fear of insects in very large numbers. I suspect that some people might have seen a caterpillar net in their garden and doused it with insecticide without stopping to identify it. Which would be a real shame, because some extremely rare species superficially resemble the oak processionary moth.

One of the most endangered is the Small Eggar (Eriogaster lanestris). This species lives in hawthorn, blackthorn and birch, and the caterpillars create a nest about the size of a small football. The larvae are attuned to one another and it’s believed that they communicate about where the best feeding opportunities are, before leaving to forage en masse. They have been under extreme pressure due to the loss of habitat in the countryside, and so are more likely to come into contact with humans. What a shame it would be to lose this creature because of mistaken identity.

Photo Four by By User:MarkusHagenlocher - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151016

Small Eggar caterpillar (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Hans Gasperl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Small Eggar silk tent (Photo Five)

Photo Six by [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult Small Eggar (Photo Six)

Another possible victim of over-enthusiastic caterpillar killing is the Nationally Scarce lackey moth (Malacosoma neustris), which has some of the most appealing larvae of all lepidoptera, at least to me – I spent a lot of time playing with these creatures as a child, and although they too could set off dermatitis in those who are susceptible, I never had any ill effects. These caterpillars also live in nets and their preferred foodplants include oak. cherry. plum, apple, willow and hornbeam. You can see how these chaps, spotted in an oak tree, could be doomed from the start, although their caterpillars look very different from those of the oak processionary moth, and their behaviour is quite different.

Photo Seven by By H. Krisp - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19806408

Lackey moth caterpillar (Photo Seven)

The eggs of the lackey moth look as if they’re made of ivory, and are always laid around a twig. I wonder if the mother gets dizzy laying them?

Photo Eight by By José Manuel Benito Álvarez [CC BY-SA 2.5 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lackey Moth eggs (Photo Eight)

In fact, to our human eyes, the adult moth is the least beautiful stage of the lackey moth’s life, although it is still a very handsome creature.

Photo Nine by By Ben Sale from UK ([1634] The Lackey (Malacosoma neustria)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lackey moth adult (Photo Nine)

So it seems to me that the ability to identify an oak tree, and to tell the difference between a lackey moth caterpillar with its cartoon-like blue face and the ultra-furry oak processionary moth caterpillar are what’s required to prevent the accidental extermination of rare moths who are already under extreme pressure. And also, it helps if, having learned these things, we communicate them to our children. No one wants their little ones to be bitten or stung or hurt in any way, but the best way of keeping them safe is to help them to understand what’s safe and what’s not. Children are naturally curious, and when they’re outdoors they will probably fall off of logs, get stung by wasps and come home covered in bruises and dirty. It’s hard, I know, but we cannot protect those that we love from things that hurt them and nor should we. How can we learn resilience without a little adversity? And besides, exploring the outside world and discovering things for ourselves is so much fun that it will bring us joy for a lifetime.

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.growsonyou.com/photo/slideshow/157704-bird-cherry-tree-ermine-moths-larvae/all

Photo Two by By David Short from Windsor, UK – Bird cherry ermine (rp), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63856375

Photo Three by By Kleuske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19940595

Photo Four by By User:MarkusHagenlocher – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151016

Photo Five by By Hans Gasperl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by By H. Krisp – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19806408

Photo Eight by By José Manuel Benito Álvarez [CC BY-SA 2.5 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by By Ben Sale from UK ([1634] The Lackey (Malacosoma neustria)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



Wednesday Weed – California Lilac

California Lilac (Ceanothus sp.)

Dear Readers, there is nothing that sounds more like summer to me than the drowsy buzz of bees feeding from California lilac. It seems to attract everything from bumblebees to honeybees to hoverflies,  and although its rather dusty, resinous smell makes my nose tingle I still always stop to see who is visiting. Apparently there is a species of California lilac which smells so strongly that it resembles ‘boiling honey in an enclosed space’. I think I shall give that one a miss.

The masses of tiny flowers soon lose their petals, resulting in a puddle of blue at the base of the plant.The resultant seeds are said to be dependent on forest fires in order to germinate, so it sounds as if self-seeding won’t be a problem unless you’re prone to having bonfires close to the shrub.

California lilac comes in many shades of blue, from what my grandmother used to call ‘Royal Blue’  to the most delicate powdery robin’s egg shade. It is extremely popular in the County  Roads here in East Finchley, where it has grown to about eight feet tall. Most varieties are evergreen, and there is even a more recumbent plant that could be used for ground cover.

There are 50-60 species in the Ceanothus genus, which is part of the buckthorn family. The genus is an endemic to North America, with its epicentre in, as the name suggests, California. The name ‘Ceanothus’ means ‘spiny plant’, which is surprising as, as far as I know, this is a most inoffensive plant. Do let me know if it’s attacked you at any point. I suspect that the small trees in my area are examples of the ‘domesticated’ form of Ceanothus arboreus, but there are many hybrids around. I am wondering whether to pop one into my tiny front garden, to fill the gap between the bulbs and the lavender. I shall be engaged in pondering as I write.

Incidentally, Ceanothus has nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots, which makes it good for the soil.

One species of Ceanothus, Ceanothus americanus, is known as ‘New Jersey tea’ because its leaves were used as a tea substitute during the American Revolution. As the plant is very high in tannin this is not as surprising as we might think.

Ceanothus americanus (Public Domain)

In their native North America, Ceanothus leaves are eaten by mule deer, and the stems and seeds are eaten by quail and porcupine. And so here, for your delectation, is a North American porcupine. You’re welcome.

Photo One by Fyn Kind at https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/26920045526/

North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) (Photo One)

In its native North America, Ceanothus has had a variety of uses. Those fluffy blue flowers are saponins, which means that they can be used as a soap substitute if crushed and mixed with water.This ‘soap’ was used by the women of some Native American tribes to perfume their skin before their marriage ceremony.

The roots produce a red dye (one alternative name for some varieties of Ceanothus is ‘red-root’). The flowers produce a green dye. Unsurprisingly, using the whole plant gives you a brown dye.

Medicinally, the roots were dried and used as a decoction to treat sore throats and all manner of bronchial ailments, from asthma to bronchitis. The plant was also used as a wash to treat sores and skin complaints.

One theme that crops up repeatedly when I read about Ceanothus is that it is short-lived. I wonder if the climate in the UK stresses these Californians, what with our heavy downpours, brief periods of hot sunshine and unexpected cold snaps.  At any rate, it certainly stresses me. I also wonder if any plant that blossoms so prolifically, year after year, can keep going for a long time. After all, trees such as beech and oak flower and set fruit intermittently rather than constantly generous.

Just as the Ceanothus in bloom reminds me that it’s summer, so do the banners outside the Royal Academy announcing that it’s time for the Summer Exhibition (which opens to the public on 12th June). For those of you who are unfamiliar with this event, it’s an opportunity for artists to have their work hung in the halls of the Royal Academy. The vast majority of the works are also for sale, with prices varying from under a hundred pounds to many thousands. Among the eager newcomers will be the new works of the Academicians, artists who have made it to become Fellows of the Royal Academy. One of the most interesting is Anthony Green, who presents scenes from the most unlikely angles. Conveniently, he has created one of a vase of Ceanothus, and if you have £16,500 hanging about I’d advise you to buy it sharpish. For more of his paintings, which manage to be both familiar and otherworldly, have a look here. I find them most intriguing.

‘A Vase of Ceanothus’ by Anthony Green (2009) (Photo Two)

I am also rather partial to this painting, ‘Ceanothus tree in a London street’ by Melissa Scott-MIller, who says ‘Who am I to edit nature? It looks beautiful enough as it is’. This image just sums up the unexpected pleasures to be had in walking London’s residential streets. The painting was at the Affordable Art Fair, and you can read more about it here. If you’d like to look at some of the artist’s other paintings (and I admit to having fallen in love) her website is here.

‘Ceanothus tree in a London street’ by Melissa Scott-Miller (2016) (Photo Three)

And to finish this post with something unexpected, here is a Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus), whose larvae feed on the leaves of our Wednesday Weed. This huge moth can be found all the way from British Columbia to Baja California, and has a maximum wingspan of 127mm. The adults do not feed, but spend all their short lives looking for a mate and laying eggs. The caterpillar goes through a variety of colour changes, but is never anything short of spectacular. I love the way that the eyespots make it look as if the moth has a couple of snakes for protection.

Photo Four by Linda Tanner (originally posted to Flickr as Ceanothus Moth) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus) (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Fyn Kind at https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/26920045526/

Photo Two at http://www.anthonygreen.org.uk/paintings.html

Photo Three at https://affordableartfair.com/melissa-scott-miller-ceanothus-tree-in-a-london-street

Photo Four by Linda Tanner (originally posted to Flickr as Ceanothus Moth) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pertaining to ashes


Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

Dear Readers, when I first moved into my house in East Finchley in 2010, I was at a loss to know what to do with the darkest part of the side return, the gap between the kitchen and the house next door. I wondered if anything would ever be happy there. Fortunately, someone suggested hydrangea petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea, and after 8 years it has reached the roof. This year, it  was smothered in its strange, lace-cap flowers, and every time I stepped outside on my way to top up the bird feeders, it made me smile.

I didn’t, however, think that it was a very good plant for wildlife. My highest hopes were that it might provide a thick and leafy haven for birds’ nests at some point. But then, I noticed that, although there were only a tiny number of white flowers with petals on each flowerhead (known as a corymb), there were masses of tiny flowerets, which seemed to be composed entirely of stamen. I learned that the white flowers are sterile, but the unassuming smaller ‘blooms’ are not, and are in fact a rich source of pollen.

And so I started to notice that various pollinators were visiting the hydrangea. Bumblebees and honeybees collected the pollen, and small hoverflies seemed to be patrolling territories above the flowers. However, my happiest realisation was that I had a new visitor, or at least one who was new to me. The black and grey bee in the first photo is an ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria), and she is busily collecting pollen.

How do I know that this is a female? The shiny black abdomen and grey and black-striped thorax are very distinctive. The males are smaller, and have white tufts of hair sticking out of the side of their thoraxes, rather like muttonchop whiskers (though in the wrong place). These are small bees, about two-thirds of the size of a honeybee. Their Latin name ‘cineraria’ means ‘pertaining to ashes’, a reference to their colour – incidentally the plant cineraria was probably named because of its grey furry stems.

IMG_4609 (2)

Although ashy mining bees are solitary in the sense that they don’t form colonies like honeybees or bumblebees, they do like to nest together. They build long nesting tunnels, usually on sunny south-facing slopes, and sometimes a favoured site can be peppered with hundreds of individual nests, the bees coming and going with a frequency that  reminds me of Heathrow airport. The bees seem to prefer bare soil, but will sometimes nest in lawns, leaving little ‘volcanoes’ of soil. They block the tunnels when they’ve finished foraging, or if it looks like rain. If disturbed they will rush to blockade their nest entrances – these are not aggressive creatures, and I have never heard of anyone being stung by one.

As is often the way, I noticed the bees last weekend, and by mid-week the hydrangea had gone over, and the bees had disappeared. Much like the hairy-footed flower bees that are around on warm days in April, ashy mining bees have a short, single flight period, and will all be gone by the end of June. The females spend their time busily gathering nectar and pollen to feed the larvae who have hatched in the brood chambers at the end of those tunnels. Once they have fed enough, the larvae will pupate for the rest of the year, ready to emerge in spring – the males pop out before the females so that they’re ready for them when they come out (much as the male frogs emerge in my pond a few days before the females turn up). The male bees hover around the nest site in a behaviour known as ‘lekking’, a term that I associate more with black grouse than insects.

IMG_4611 (2)

Ashy mining bees are not at all particular about what plants they use for pollen, and are very important for the pollination of oil-seed rape in some areas of the country (an indication that honeybees are not the only important pollinators). They go about their work largely unnoticed, appearing for a few weeks every year and then disappearing. I shall certainly watch for them next year, and will keep my eyes open for whatever species comes next. There is a dance in the gentle succession of species that emerge, or bloom, or die-back every month, and getting to know these patterns has been one of the most wonderful things about writing this blog. It gives me a sense of belonging and groundedness that is most reassuring when so many other things are in flux.

In her wonderful book ‘The Enchanted Life’, Sharon Blackie refers to the importance of having a ‘Sit Spot’ – somewhere that you sit every day, whatever the weather, and just observe. I know that plonking down on my kitchen step and paying attention to the hydrangea and to the plants has given me a real sense of the turn of the seasons and of how plants and animals and humans interrelate. It has given me peace when serenity was in short supply. It reminds me that life goes on, literally right outside my back door. And it is cool, and green, in the way that a forest is cool and green. It has become a sanctuary, thanks to this plant that doesn’t mind the shade, and flowers with such generosity. It reminds me how lucky I am.

I recommend ‘The Enchanted Life’ for anyone who would like to foster a deeper connection with the area in which they live, and who yearns for a sense of belonging. You can find out more about it (and purchase it directly from the author) here




Wednesday Weed – Common Fumitory

Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis)

Dear Readers, this is a plant that grows in one spot at the end of Mum and Dad’s road in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset. I love it because of its bright pink and purple flowers, which remind me of lipstick. Common fumitory is in the same family as that urban favourite yellow corydalis, and if you look closely you can see how similar the flowers are.

Yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Common fumitory is an ancient introduction to the UK (its natural range is mainland Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa), and its Latin species name, officinalis, indicates that it was used as a medicinal plant. The name ‘fumitory’ comes from ‘fumus terrae‘, or ‘smoke of the earth’, thought to be because the fine foliage looks a little like a cloud of fumes. Pliny the Elder noted that the sap from the plant, if rubbed in the eyes, made them sore, which is just what happens when ‘smoke gets in your eyes’, and led to another vernacular name, ‘fumewort’. However, the plant was used historically for treating conjunctivitis and other eye complaints, so maybe the soreness was just a necessary side-effect of the treatment. It was also used to treat skin complaints, to reduce the appearance of blemishes,  and as a kidney cleanser.

In Rosamund Richardson’s lovely book ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’, she reports how the cleansing power of fumitory was thought to extend beyond the skin to the soul:

‘If you wish to be pure and holy

Wash your face with fumitory’

Richardson tells us how the plant, according to a Victorian practitioner,

‘ought chiefly to be employed by those who have previously removed those moral blemishes which deform the mind, or degrade the dignity of a reasonable and an immortal being’.

In other words, sort yourself out before you start worrying about your freckles.

I was very sorry to learn that Rosamund Richardson died last year at the age of 71, having written many books about the British countryside. ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’ is, I think, her last book, and well worth a place on any bedside table.

Other medicinal uses included the treatment of cradle-cap in babies.

Common fumitory is said to have roots that smell of smoke, and it is believed to expel evil spirits if burned in the house, or at an exorcism. It is said to protect you if you rub some on your shoes before a journey, and it may also bring you wealth, either spiritual or material. In the Ayurvedic tradition, fumitory is believed to confer long life.

In Iran, ‘water of fumitory’ is made by steeping the plant in water overnight and then distilling the liquid – the resulting distillate is used to flavour sherbet. Generally, however, the plant has been used sparingly as food: the leaves are said to be edible, and milk can also be soured by immersing the plant in the liquid. I have no idea what you would do with the milk that was ‘turned’ in this way, but maybe it made for a more pleasant taste than milk that was allowed to go ‘sour’ naturally. Plus, we are only just finding out some of the benefits of fermented foods, so maybe this was found to be healthful.

That bard of the English countryside, John Clare, whose observations of plants and animals still ring fresh after several hundred years, had this to say about the uses of fumitory in his poem ‘May’, part of ‘A Shepherd’s Calendar’:

And fumitory too a name
That superstition holds to fame
Whose red and purple mottled flowers
Are cropt by maids in weeding hours
To boil in water milk and way (*whey)
For washes on an holiday
To make their beauty fair and sleak
And scour the tan from summers cheek

The flowers of fumitory can be used to produce a yellow dye for wool.

Although the flowers look very enticing to me (and are indeed nectar-rich), they are rarely pollinated by insects, and so this annual plant reproduces by self-fertilisation. One animal that did favour the seeds and flowers was the increasingly-rare turtle dove, so perhaps this also helped to spread the plant from one place to another. It is thought that our intensive agricultural methods, which mean that there are far fewer ‘weeds’ such as fumitory about, is one factor in the bird’s Red List status. It is also shot in huge numbers as it migrates over countries such as Malta and Cyprus.

Photo One by By Yuvalr - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16798749

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) (Photo One)

Shakespeare was not overly impressed with fumitory, which he described as a ‘rank weed’ of fields. Here is Cordelia talking about her father in ‘King Lear’:

As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,

    Crown’d with rank Fumiter and Furrow-weed,

    With burdocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers

    Darnel and all the idle weeds that grow

    In our sustaining corn.”

The plant crops up again in Henry V, and again Shakespeare describes the poor fumitory as ‘rank’:

Her fallow leas

    The Darnel, Hemlock and rank Fumitory

    Doth root upon.”

If I was fumitory’s press agent, I think I’d be complaining. However, Shakespeare was pre-dated in using the word ‘fumitory’ by several hundred years, with Chaucer having the first use of the word in a manuscript in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, where the plant is part of a medicine used as a laxative.


And finally, here’s a fragment from Gerard Manley Hopkins, that ecstatic poet of kestrel and fallen leaves, on the common fumitory. People seem to either love Hopkins or find him uncomfortably over the top, but I can never read him without a sense of expansion, of the world being larger and more miraculous than I imagined, and in these straightened, black-and-white-no-shades-of-grey times this can surely only be a good thing. The poem below is not one of his best (as a fragment I suspect he meant to work on it but never got round to it), but can’t you just see that furrow?


I ám so véry, O só very glad
That I dó think there is not to be had…

The blue wheat-acre is underneath
And the braided ear breaks out of the sheath,
The ear in milk, lush the sash,
And crush-silk poppies aflash,
The blood-gush blade-gash
Flame-rash rudred
Bud shelling or broad-shed
Tatter-tassel-tangled and dingle-a-dangled
Dandy-hung dainty head.

And down … the furrow dry
Sunspurge and oxeye
And laced-leaved lovely
Foam-tuft fumitory

Through the velvety wind V-winged
To the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
With a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
Sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
Of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.’

Photo Credit

Photo One by By Yuvalr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16798749

Learning to be a starling


Dear Readers, I have mentioned before that my garden is inundated with fledgling starlings every year. To start with it’s just one or two but by the end of May every bough is bending under the weight of squawling youngsters. When I look up, I see adult starlings with their offspring in hot pursuit. It’s a difficult few weeks for starling parents, to be sure. To start with, the youngsters are completely clueless, standing ankle-deep in food without knowing what it is.


Somehow the adults seem to know which ‘child’ is theirs, and they only ever feed their own offspring, regardless of the pitiful cries of other youngsters. I wonder if they know by the tone of voice, or by some subtle visual signal? The little ones all look the same to me. Most starling parents seem to have two fledglings on average, though some exhausted parents have managed three – they probably started off with four eggs.  And they might not even be their own chicks – starling mothers will sometimes lay an egg in a neighbour’s nest for them to rear. This makes me wonder if this is part of the evolutionary process by which birds like the cuckoo learned to give up nest-building and chick-rearing altogether.


During the next few days, the chicks follow hard on the heels of their parents, or wait impatiently on a tree branch for food to arrive. I’ve noticed that they start to peck at anything that looks the slightest bit edible.


Are unripe rowan berries edible?


How about hawthorn flowers?


Maybe this is food?

I suspect that most birds are ‘hard-wired’ to peck, and so, following the example of their parents, will learn what’s edible and what’s not, just as most young animals, humans included, will pick up anything and put it straight in their mouths.

Some of the fledglings are definitely faster studies than others, not just in this question of feeding themselves, but also in paying attention to the social cues of the other birds. I’ve noticed that some youngsters will head off as soon as a much larger bird lands on the bird table, while others have to be practically knocked off of it. Some stay quiet when there’s a mass scatter of the birds to the safety of the trees, while others carry on calling. I suspect that again you could probably track the process of evolution here – the quicker a youngster is on the uptake, the more likely it is to survive to pass on its genes. There is also some evidence that animals in cities that have a variety of threats and opportunities to contend with become more ‘intelligent’ (by our standards) than country creatures – in fact, animals in any particularly challenging environment may evolve to have a wider range of strategies for survival than those who live where food is plentiful. The article here has a number of interesting examples, from mountain chickadees to raccoons.


Over the next few days, the adult starlings will gradually make their youngsters independent. They will bring less food to them, and take a longer time between visits. They will become more inpatient with infants who follow them, and will sometimes try to escape their demanding offspring. This is a hard period for the fledglings, who will now have to try to fend for themselves – approximately 50 – 80% of all nestlings fledge, but only 20% of these will survive to breed. Everything eats fledgling starlings, from jays, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks to that most dedicated of predators the domestic cat, who takes more fledglings than all other predators put together. At this time of year it’s imperative to bell any outdoor cats, or at least keep them in at dawn and dusk.

The winter will also take its toll – many starlings no longer migrate, especially those in urban areas where there is usually enough food. The fledglings need to learn where to feed, drink and roost now, so that they will be prepared for the colder weather. They offset some of this difficulty by forming into flocks of adolescents, both because many eyes can identify sources of food more quickly, and because the bonds formed now will give them an advantage when they come to breed themselves next year.

The adults will have a brief period of rest and foraging for themselves before they ‘decide’ whether or not to try for a second brood.

I had always thought that the only way of ‘sexing’ adult starlings is by the small patch of colour at the base of the beak, but apparently the irises of the birds are different colours – rich brown in the male, a lighter, more mousey brown in the female. Now all I need is good light and my binoculars handy.


And soon the hubbub will have died down for another year, as the adult birds moult and everything goes quiet in the garden. At the moment, though, I am awoken every morning at 5 a.m by the sound of young starlings looking for their breakfast. I imagine the neighbours are delighted.






Wednesday Weed – River Water Crowfoot

River Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans)

Dear Readers, most of the ‘weeds’ that I’ve been writing about during this past year have either been common, widespread ‘weeds’ or garden plants, but this week I want to tell you about a plant that is both unusual and very local. River water crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans) is a member of the buttercup family that needs a clean, fast-flowing stream with a stony bed, where the water is both alkaline and relatively nutrient-rich, without being polluted by nitrates from run-off. I was delighted to find a fine crop of the plant in the tiny river that flows through Milborne St Andrew in Dorset. I wrote a bit about it in Saturday’s post, but thought that it needed a bit more attention. After all, it’s not every day that you encounter a relative rarity.

River water crowfoot can have stems that are up to 20 feet long, with each stem bearing several of the pure white flowers. The leaves are all thread-like and submerged, and undulate in the water in a very pleasing way. In the film below, I am holding the camera still and the water is moving. It’s maybe best avoided if you have a tendency to motion sickness.


MIlborne St Andrew has long been a ‘watery’ kind of place – a few years ago the village was cut off by flooding from this very same stream (which is a tributory of the delightfully named River Piddle). The area outside the shop was under about a metre of water, and this required a thirty-mile detour for anyone eager to get to or from the nearest railway station at Moreton. Some folk would disregard the warning that the area was too deep to ford, even in a Land Rover, and much entertainment was to be had by watching as the inevitable happened, and local tractors had to be summoned to get the culprits out of their self-inflicted immersion. Fortunately, a lot of work has been done and, fingers crossed, the stream is now relatively well-behaved, and whatever changes have been made seem to not to have affected the water crowfoot.

Incidentally, the name ‘Milborne’ gives you a clue – any place name with ‘borne’ in the name refers to a small river in Anglo Saxon. ‘Winterbourne/borne’, as in ‘Winterbourne Whitechurch’, means a stream that only runs in winter. In these days of flooding, it would be well to do a spot of research before moving to one of these delightful Dorset villages – those Anglo Saxons knew a lot about geography.

The presence of water crowfoot is thought by some ecologists to indicate the site of a collapsed bridge or old ford, though why I have not yet worked out.

Why ‘crowfoot’ though? The leaves of other species of crowfoot do have something of a bird’s foot look about them, but not here. Is it because it was thought that the seeds were spread by crows (not that unlikely, as many other plants arrive in ponds and rivers when birds stop to drink)? Or is it because crows were seen feeding in meadows (they love the insects that used to inhabit cow pats before the animals were regularly dosed with antibiotics)? The name goes back to the Middle English ‘crou-fot’, so it has been around as long as those Anglo-Saxon place names.

River water crowfoot is endemic to Western Europe, and the UK has over twenty percent of the total population of the plant. While it is classified as ‘Least Concern’ here, it is considered Vulnerable in Sweden and Near Threatened in Switzerland. As with all water plants, factors such as pollution and changes in river management can eradicate a population overnight. It was good to see the plants in Milborne in such abundance and obvious good health.

It is difficult to look at the streaming green tresses of the river water crowfoot and not think of Ophelia, and indeed Gertrude mentions ‘crow-flowers’ when describing the ‘fantastic garlands’ that Ophelia made before her suicide. Millais’s painting of Ophelia shows some river water crowfoot at the bottom of the picture, although when I look at this painting I can’t help but remember the terrible cold that the model, Elizabeth Liddal, caught while floating in a bath over a period of four months.

Photo One from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01506

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais,(1851-2) (Photo One)

River water crowfoot is an important part of the ecosystem of a stream, partly because it provides cover and refuge for all manner of fish fry, insect larvae and other small invertebrates. Less obviously, dense stands of crowfoot can actually alter the dynamics of a stream, causing it to drop sediment in places where the plant forces the flow of the water to slow down. This sediment then enables other plants to root, and increases biodiversity. In particular, caddis and mayfly larvae are able to thrive, and these in turn feed the juvenile trout and salmon that may live in the river. It’s not for nothing that mayflies are the models for many of the lures used by fly fishermen and women. This fascinating article goes into greater detail on how the humble crowfoot can change the whole dynamic of a chalk stream.

Photo Two by Aaron Gustafson at https://www.flickr.com/photos/aarongustafson/4226641945

Brown Trout (Salma trutta) – one of the fish that benefits from water crowfoot cover (Photo Two)

So, as I write this on a sunny, humid day, I turn to Edward Thomas, a poet who captured the English countryside in a way that is redolent of sunshine through trees and the song of birds, mixed with a deep melancholy. For those of you who might wonder what a sedge warbler sounds like (as I did), you can see and hear them at the link here.


This beauty made me dream there was a time
Long past and irrecoverable, a clime
Where any brook so radiant racing clear
Through buttercup and kingcup bright as brass
But gentle, nourishing the meadow grass
That leans and scurries in the wind, would bear
Another beauty, divine and feminine,
Child to the sun, a nymph whose soul unstained
Could love all day, and never hate or tire,
A lover of mortal or immortal kin.

And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man’s daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill, or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May—the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.

Edward Thomas (1915)


Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01506

Photo Two by Aaron Gustafson at https://www.flickr.com/photos/aarongustafson/4226641945





Bugwoman on Location – Spring in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers,  the most beautiful tree in Milborne St Andrew stands next to a cottage that looks as if it’s peeping over the fence. I look for the tree whenever I arrive. It is variegated in cream and green and when the leaves first open it looks like a great pistachio-tinged cloud. It’s strange how Milborne has become a second home to me, a devout London woman who always thought that the country was overrated. What’s brought me to this realisation has been my gradual exploration of the village in all weathers, over years: I know where the scarlet pimpernel blooms, where the rookeries are, where you can spot a yellowhammer if you’re lucky and patient. I have grown to love this place, and the people who live there. It has humbled me with its goodness and patience, its friendliness and its unexpected wildness.

I visit  Milborne St Andrew to visit my eighty-something parents every month, and  I am usually on  a mission. Sometimes it’s to sort out a problem with the computer, to organise some home repairs or to accompany Mum or Dad on a visit to the hospital. But this time, it was to begin to sort out a cruise. All things being equal, we are hoping to travel next summer. It has been  a conundrum to plan: the ship needs to be ‘big but not too big’, the location needs to be both ‘hot’ and ‘not too hot’ and the timing needs to fit in with not only Mum and Dad but also me and my friend J, who is coming with us.

But first, Mum and Dad need to renew their passports. They’ve been too unwell to travel during the past few years, so their passports have expired and they need new photographs. Fortunately, you can renew your passport online these days if you’ve already had one, and I can recommend it as an experience. I take several photos of Dad standing against a white door (for the requisite Plain Background) and my main problem is that he can’t stop himself from smiling.

‘Look serious!’ I bellow, with little effect.

Finally, we get a shot where his eyes are twinkling but his mouth is pretty much horizontal. I just hope that cheery eyes are allowed. At least it got past the Computerised Pedant  in the online application form, who gives me a big green tick.

Let’s hope there’s not too much twinkle 🙂

Then it’s Mum’s turn.

Mum is very unsteady on her feet, and has severe scoliosis, which means that she can’t hold her head up. Plus, she seems to have developed a head tilt. I take photos, pop them into the online application, and the Computer Says No.

‘ You Do Not Appear To Be Looking At The Camera’ it says, probably because Mum’s head is just a little out of the vertical.

I position her in front of the door, gently move her chin to the vertical, crouch down and fire off some more shots. I feel like David Bailey photographing a supermodel (for those of you old enough to remember who the hell David Bailey was). Dad helps by shouting advice from his reclining chair.

‘ Keep still, Syb!’ he says. ‘You’re moving about all over the place!’

‘ I can’t help it Tom’, she says, wobbling.

And somehow I manage to grab a shot between wobbles that satisfies the Computerised Pedant, and the longed-for green tick appears.

This morning I despatched the old passports, for the processing can’t start without them. And then we will see.

It is bittersweet, all this planning for the future. Today, Dad goes to Dorchester Hospital for a CT scan. The doctor is worried by Dad’s persistent cough, and his unexpected two-stone weight loss. Dad is worried by the logistics – he can’t breathe properly if he lays flat on his back because of his COPD. He has packed his dressing gown and his slippers, but he keeps getting up and down. Dad is not normally worried by these things, but today he is very on edge. And of course he won’t find out the results straight away. We are all concerned about what it might be, and we are all putting a brave face on it. Hopefully it will be nothing.

I look out of the window, and the rhubarb is in full flower. I have never seen such a thing. If I don’t cut down this magnificent florescence the rhubarb will die, and so, after taking a photo I hack it down, much to the disgust of a nest of ants who come tumbling out of the ground like lava.

Flowering rhubarb

And then I take myself out for a walk, as usual. Opposite the village hall there is a bubbling stream which comes from under a culvert, runs along merrily past a wall emblazoned with red valerian and ivy-leaved toadflax, turns a sharp left, then a sharp right, and finally disappears into a field. Along the whole way, the water crowfoot is in flower. Near a wall, where the current is slack, there is a raft of white petals entangled in stems and leaves.

Where the current is faster there are flowers in bloom, their heads lifted above the water on stiff stems, presumably so that their pollinators don’t drown. And the long stems and leaves undulate in the water like grass snakes.  They are like the blossom-encrusted manes of water horses, galloping just below the surface. I watch, entranced, for a while, as the invisible currents and eddies of the water are made manifest by the movement of the plants. And I ask myself how life would be if I could be so emotionally supple, so able to submit to the subtle undertows and whirlpools and obstacles of life. Instead, I seem to believe that I can stare down the illness and death that stalks my parents with sheer force of will. I know that this is illogical, but part of me thinks that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse themselves would blench when confronted by the love that a child has for their parents.


And then I leave the stream and head home. On the way I pass a patch of ramping fumitory, growing at the bottom of a wall. This is the only place I know where this plant grows, with its lipstick-pink and indigo flowers on their thread-like stems. Every year it dies back to nothing, and every spring it comes back, along with the heavy-headed poppies and the martial hedge mustard.

I pick one of the flowers, and take it back  for Mum and Dad.

‘What do you think this is?’ I ask Dad. He takes it in his cold, numb fingers, almost drops it, picks it up again, twirls it.

‘Not sure’, he says, ‘some kind of clover?’

‘It’s ramping fumitory’, I say, ‘not sure what family it’s in, but I can see why you’d say clover’.

I show it to Mum.

‘Pretty’, she says.

And I realise that what I’m trying to do is to bring the outside world into the house for them, to say ‘this is what delights me, I hope it delights you too’. Doesn’t life call to life, after all? I want to turn their faces to the sun, to the world beyond the four walls that surround them. I want them to have both hope for the future and joy in the present moment. There is such a delicate dance between what I want for Mum and Dad, and what they want for themselves, and there is a fine line between ‘enabler’ and ‘bossyboots’. But I so want them to be able to eke each last drop of nectar out of their day, to go to bed having experienced something new and interesting, to feel that progress is still possible.

And now, I have to go. I’ve a cruise to arrange.