An Early Spring Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it really feels as if spring is gathering apace this week. From a few tentative flowers opening gently on the crab apples and cherry trees, there is now an abundance of fluffy blossom.

The chapel looks spick and span after its long renovation, although these days it only houses the (much-appreciated) toilets rather than holding any services.

The tree on the corner of the woodland burial area is looking very fine as well.

The primroses are emerging under the cedars of Lebanon.

And the daffodils are everywhere. I feel a bit of a Scrooge for saying it, but I am generally not a great fan of those big butter-coloured daffodils, though they are cheerful enough, I suppose. I like the paler, creamier ones that look more like the vanishingly-rare wild daffodils of Wales, and I have a fondness for the little miniature ones as well. And I’m fond of what I think of as ‘proper’ narcissi, like the pheasant’s eye ones with a small, red-rimmed trumpet. Paperwhites have their place, though Mum used to find their scent overpowering in a small space, and I must admit that they can make me feel slightly nauseous too. I’m becoming so fussy! Or is it just that I’m noticing my preferences more?

Little daffodils (Tete-a-tete I think?)

On a few of the sunnier graves there is a cheery outburst of red deadnettle.

And of course there are always daisies. I think you could find some in flower in the cemetery on every single day of the year. They always seem so modest and so hard-working to me.

There are some unexpected visitors resting next to the stream. I love the way that ducks appear to be asleep but always have one eye open to make sure that you aren’t up to any mischief.

A lady stopped her car to say she’d been seeing the ‘birds’ for a few days, but wasn’t sure what they were. Unfortunately she asked my husband, who, momentarily flustered,  could only say that they were ‘ducks’. I have more work to do, clearly, though if she’d asked me she’d probably still be sitting in her car listening to me pronouncing forth on the wildfowl of London, so she had a lucky escape.

More spring flowers are emerging: there are the first grape hyacinths

and some Loddon lilies, which seem to be a cemetery speciality. I’m sure all of them are planted rather than wild, but they are naturalising in some areas. At first glance you might think that they are just giant snowdrops, but the shape of the flowers is quite distinct.

A rose-ringed parakeet posed very nicely for the camera, unlike the two that were briefly on the suet feeder in the garden this morning. Whenever I see them I think of the one that visited the garden the day after Dad died. It’s funny how superstitious death can make a person: I almost believed that Dad had popped back to cheer me up, and with the two this morning I automatically thought of Mum and Dad together again. Of course, I don’t really believe that they have somehow been reincarnated as parakeets, but part of me wishes it were true. What complicated beings we are as we wrestle with the big, unsolvable questions of life. Or maybe it’s just me.

And as we head into my very favourite part of the cemetery, the overgrown, unpeopled area around Kew Road and Withington Road, I am struck yet again by the beauty of a blossom tree.

The early crocuses are almost over now, how glad I am that I caught them in their full glory! They rather look as if an elephant has trodden on them now.

On the other hand, the Dutch crocuses are just coming out.

And while the snowdrops in the sunny areas emerged first and are now dying back…

…the ones in the shady areas are still in full flower.

And, let me share a little story with you that made me gasp. One of the Facebook groups that I belong to is about plant identification. A person posted that they had been reading about sorrel (the lemony-leaved member of the dock family), and so when they saw the plant below they decided to forage some and eat it.

And of course, it’s cuckoo-pint/lords and ladies, and is poisonous. How you could mistake one for the other astounds me, but then it’s often difficult to judge scale and size from a photo, and I suppose that the leaves are a similar shape if you squint. Fortunately, the poison in cuckoo-pint expresses itself by making the lips tingle and the tongue swell up, plus it tastes extremely unpleasant, so you aren’t likely to eat a lot of it. But even so, this was a close escape. I guess it’s exactly how our ancestors learned, and the ones who didn’t learn ended up deaded, as my Dad would have said.

Cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)

I heard the buzzard but didn’t see it. It’s very frustrating – I have a feeling that there’s a nest in the cemetery somewhere, and it must be pretty big, but I can’t find it. Anyhow, instead I saw a pair of crows harassing the kestrel, poor thing. It’s very difficult to make out from my most excellent photo (ahem) but it’s the bird in the middle. Kestrels don’t take nestlings or eggs, but I guess the crows aren’t taking any chances.

I saw one of the feral cats looking very sleek and well-fed – the lady who used to travel all the way from Camden to feed them and the foxes and the birds every day manages to get in at the weekend now when she can get a lift, but I suspect that other people are doing their bit to make sure that the animals don’t go hungry. I caught a quick glimpse of a fox too, but not for long enough to see if it was the poor vixen who’d had an accident that I saw last time.

And in other news,  I had my first Covid vaccination on Wednesday (the Astra Zeneca one), and although I felt pretty rubbish for about 24 hours it really does feel now as if there is a glimmer of  hope for some return to a new ‘normal’. I am so grateful to the NHS and all the people who are volunteering to help with the programme, and to the scientists who have managed to perform this miracle. I just hope now that we find a way to distribute the vaccine more equitably than we currently are, because in this situation it really is true that none of us are safe until we’re all safe. As I have done right through lockdown I am counting my blessings fervently and hoping for a decent pay rise for NHS staff (rather than the derisory 1% currently on offer), for more recognition for our care home staff, for a complete review of the care system, for support and recognition for our teachers and for all the workers who continued to staff our essential shops and transport systems, who collected our waste and delivered our post. If nothing else, this last year should have taught us who really is essential, and who really does deserve to be rewarded.

 

 

 

Saturday Quiz – Mountain ‘Weeds’

Dear Readers, many of the ‘weeds’ that have made their home in the UK came originally from mountainous areas. But which mountain range did these plants come from originally? One mark for the species, a second mark if you can name the mountain range that they came from.

Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. on Thursday 11th March please – I will unapprove your answers when I see them so that other people can’t see them, but I’m not always the speediest, so write your answers down old-school on a piece of paper first if you don’t want to be influenced.

Onwards!

1)

2)

3)

4)

5) This one has a wide distribution, so can you tell me where it was first found?

6)

7)

8)

9)

10)

 

 

 

Saturday Quiz – Wasp, Moth, Bee or Fly? The Answers!

Title Photo by Siga, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, unusually we have a clear and run away winner this week, with Fran and Bobby Freelove not only getting all the insects in the right groups, but naming pretty much all of the species – they end up with 22.5 out of 24 (I was giving one mark for the correct species and one for the correct family). And in the following pack, we have Leo with 12 out of 12 for family ID, Claire with 11 and Mike with 10. It was a very tricky quiz so well done to everyone who took part!

Handy hints: Flies always have those big compound eyes which take up most of their faces (clearly seen in the title photo, and in the marmalade hoverfly). They also always have teeny tiny antennae. Flies also only have two wings, although this isn’t so easy to see in all of the photos.

Moths have thick, extravagant antennae, and no waist at all.

Bees often have antennae with a ‘kink’ or elbow in them, and have small oval-shaped eyes. They can be hairy, but then so can everyone else (have a look at the beefly). They have four wings, which, along with their eyes, is the easiest way of distinguishing them from flies.

Wasps tend to be slender, with a marked ‘waist’, but I think they are probably the hardest group to definitely identify. This is not helped by there being many families of ‘wasps’ – the ruby-tailed wasp in the first photo is in a different family from the other two examples. In this quiz, it was probably easiest to assume that if you didn’t know what it was, it was a wasp.

Photo One by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

1) Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis Ignita) – WASP

Photo Two by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2) Ivy Bee (Colletes hederae) – BEE

Photo Three by André Karwath aka Aka, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) – FLY

Photo Four by jp hamon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) Dark-Edged Beefly (Bombylius major) – FLY

Photo Five by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) Hairy-Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes) – BEE

Photo Six by By Ian Kimber - Photo by Ian Kimber of ukmoths.org.uk who kindly granted permission by e-mail to use under a GFDL and/or CC-BY-SA license., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1313245

6) Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis) – MOTH

Photo Seven by Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

7) Heath Potter Wasp (Eumenes coarctatus) – WASP

Photo Eight By Bruce Marlin - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=662209

8) Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum) – BEE

Photo Nine by Lamiot, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) Six-Belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis) – MOTH

Photo Ten by By Algirdas - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1803749

10) Tachina fera (Hoverfly) – FLY

Photo Eleven by Slimguy, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

11) Big-Headed Digger Wasp (Ectemnius cephalotes) – WASP

Photo Twelve by M kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

12) Narrow-Bordered Bee Hawkmoth (Hemaris tityus) MOTH

Photo Credits

Title Photo by Siga, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo One by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by André Karwath aka Aka, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by jp hamon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by By Ian Kimber – Photo by Ian Kimber of ukmoths.org.uk who kindly granted permission by e-mail to use under a GFDL and/or CC-BY-SA license., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1313245

Photo Seven by Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eight By Bruce Marlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=662209

Photo Nine by Lamiot, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten  By Algirdas – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1803749

Photo Eleven by Slimguy, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twelve by M kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Tense Times for Coldfall Wood

Sunrise in Coldfall Wood December 2020

Dear Readers, you might think that the trees that form part of an ancient woodland nature reserve would be safe from being cut down,  except when it’s essential for the management of the area. Sadly, as I have learned, you would be wrong. Trees are often felled in urban areas because they are blamed for damage to nearby housing, even when the houses are built  after the trees are fully grown, and even when such housing is extended right up to the treeline.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know how passionately I care about the few small areas of ancient woodland that remain in North London, in particular Coldfall Wood. At only 14 hectares it provides a home for 26 species of breeding birds (including the lesser spotted woodpecker and song thrush, both Red List species),  2 species of bat, 106 species of beetle (including three Nationally Notable species), 56 species of spiders and 3 species of pseudoscorpion.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing in Coldfall Wood

Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata) in Coldfall Wood

Two nuthatches – Coldfall Wood

Stock Dove (Coldfall Wood)

Treecreeper (Coldfall Wood)

One of the species recorded is the very rare Lesser Glow Worm (Phosphaenus hemipterus).

Photo One By Urs Rindlisbacher - Majka GC, MacIvor JS (2009) The European lesser glow worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus (Goeze), in North America (Coleoptera, Lampyridae). ZooKeys 29: 35–47. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.279, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8770508

Lesser glow worm (Phosphaenus hemipterus) (Photo One)

However, being a rare ecosystem brings limited protection when insurance companies become involved. A local householder has been having subsidence problems with an extension that was built ten years ago. A number of two-hundred year-old oaks have already been destroyed without the knowledge of the local Friends group, whose role is to liaise with the council and to protect the wood. The plan was to fell a further seven trees on 1st March, even though the loss of the other trees hasn’t improved the situation. Fortunately we were able to get the felling postponed, but the trees still aren’t safe.

Coldfall Wood August 2020

Speckled Wood butterfly

Our local Council, Haringey, is under pressure from the insurance company (AXA) to fell the trees – the council can be found to be negligent if it doesn’t act, and can be forced to pay for any works deemed necessary. However, there are lots of reasons other than trees that can cause subsidence to occur, including the soil composition, the geography of the area and the adequacy of the foundations of the building,  and none of them have been explored. Our question is this: if cutting down a number of mature oak and hornbeam trees didn’t solve the subsidence problem, how will removing further trees help? Where does it end?

Water mint (Mentha aquatica) next to the seasonal pond, Coldfall Wood August 2020

There is a meeting on 5th March at the council to discuss a strategic approach to the problem, and we hope that this will at least allow for further research into the causes of the subsidence. However, we also have a petition asking for the felling to be stopped,  which has over 50,000 signatures already (link below). We are angry that trees and the habitat that they represent are considered so expendable at a time when councils, corporations and our national government all claim to be working to alleviate climate change. There is so much talk about protecting the environment, and yet greenspaces have never been under so much pressure. While we want to work constructively with the council and with the insurers, we have no intention of allowing the destruction of these trees.

The by-line for this blog has always been ‘ Because a community is more than just people’. That community includes the trees that provide much of the oxygen that we breathe, that shade us in the summer and that provide a home for hundreds of other species. If we don’t act now to give them the protection that they deserve, then when? 

The link to the petition is here. Please feel free to sign and share. I shall let you know how we get on.

Coldfall Wood 7.30 p.m. August 4th 2020

Photo Credits

Photo One By Urs Rindlisbacher – Majka GC, MacIvor JS (2009) The European lesser glow worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus (Goeze), in North America (Coleoptera, Lampyridae). ZooKeys 29: 35–47. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.279, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8770508

All other photos by the author

Wednesday Weed – Brazil Nuts

Photo One by Taken by Deathworm at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3580398

Brazil nuts (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I was growing up, a bowl of mixed nuts in their shells was a sure sign that Christmas was coming. There was a kind of hierarchy of difficulty when it came to using our manual nutcrackers. Hazelnuts were easy. Almonds were a bit trickier. Walnuts were pretty much spherical, and so they needed careful handling. But when it came to Brazil nuts we always handed the nutcrackers over to Dad so that he could apply the necessary pressure. Then, the white nut with its creamy flavour was separated from the papery dark brown inner skin and, if you were my grandmother, it was dipped into a puddle of table salt. She nibbled away at the nut with such obvious delight that it was clear that this was an exotic treat, not something to be taken for granted.

And if I’d known what went into the ‘making’ of a brazil nut, maybe I would have appreciated them more too.

Brazil nut trees grow in the forests of the Amazon, and the vast majority of the harvest comes from (unsurprisingly) Brazil, with Bolivia and Peru also major exporters. For some reason they are also grown in Cote d’Ivoire in Africa. However, this is one of the few major crops in the world that can only be wild harvested, and the reasons are complex.

Firstly, the Brazil nut flower can only be pollinated by a bee with enough heft to wriggle into the impressive flower. The female orchid bees meet the criteria, and so are essential to the continuation of the plant.

Photo Two by By M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas - M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas (2012) "Pollination Requirements and the Foraging Behavior of Potential Pollinators of Cultivated Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl.) Trees in Central Amazon Rainforest" Psyche vol. 2012 doi:10.1155/2012/978019 Figure 2, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22391398

The orchid bee Eulaema meriana on a Brazil nut flower (Photo Two)

However, what about the continuation of the orchid bee? The male of this species is much smaller than the female, and pollinates the orchid Coryanthes vasquezii – like all bees, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, but because the orchid has something to offer. Unusually, what the orchid offers is not nectar, but a scent – the smell of the flower is a strong attractant for the female bee, and so the male ‘splashes it on all over’ in much the same way that adolescent males of my generation used to bathe themselves in Brut aftershave.

Photo by Edrei Quek at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154959741085289&set=gm.1874856789457566&type=3&theater

Coryanthes vasquezii orchid (Photo Three)

Fortunately for the rainforest, the orchid is an epiphyte which grows only in the upper canopy of emergent trees. So, what this means is that the Brazil nut tree can’t be grown in a monoculture plantation like a peanut, but must be part of a diverse rainforest environment to survive.

Photo Four By Lior Golgher - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3231673

A Brazil nut fruit (Photo Four)

Once the flower is pollinated, it takes up to 14 months for the fruit to mature. And what a whopper it is! A Brazil nut ‘fruit’ can weigh up to 2 kgs, and as they sometimes grow in parks and gardens, there is a risk of passers-by being brained. However, once safely on the ground, the fruit can be gnawed open by agouti, delicate forest rodents who tiptoe through the undergrowth. Like squirrels, the agouti bury what they can’t eat, but don’t always return to harvest the fruit, so this is one way that new Brazil nut trees emerge.

Photo Five by By brian.gratwicke - Agouti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20397416

An agouti (Photo Five)

And I’m sure we’ve all seen those wildlife films featuring capuchin monkeys cracking open nuts by using a stone as a hammer, but if you haven’t, have a look here.

Brazil nuts, like all seeds, come with a hefty amount of fat and protein, which is intended to power the new tree when it germinates. Brazil nuts are also amongst the richest natural foods in selenium, which is an essential micronutrient. It seems that exposure to mercury or Vitamin E deficiency are the two commonest reasons for people suffering a deficiency, but grazing animals may need supplements if the soil is deficient. Although many people (like my grandmother) enjoy munching on an occasional Brazil nut, they are expensive enough not to be a regular ingredient in nut roasts and such. However, in Brazil itself, Brazil nuts are made into a cake Bolo de castanha-do-pará, and brownies and other sweetmeats may substitute Brazil nut flour for the normal wheat flour. The recipes I’ve found are mostly in Portuguese, as you might expect, but here is a link to one in English which looks pretty authentic, should you happen to have some Brazil nuts just laying about doing nothing.

Photo Six from https://receitas.globo.com/bolo-de-castanha-do-para-541ba02e4d38850a15000093.ghtml

Brazil nut cake (Photo Six)

The Brazil Nut tree itself is an extraordinary rainforest giant, reaching up to 40 metres high and living for up to a thousand years. It is forbidden to cut down a Brazil nut tree (known as a Castanheira) in Brazil without express permission, but I think it unlikely that this doesn’t happen. Let’s hope that the price of Brazil nuts stays high enough for a mature tree to retain its economic value, in a country with so much poverty. 

Photo Seven by By Nando cunha - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15650550

Brazil nut tree (Photo Seven)

And finally, in the absence of a poem, I would like to present to you this quote from Noël Coward, that delightful misanthrope. I have to say that I’ve found rather more brazil nuts than vanilla creams in my life. I will maintain to my last breath that there are more good people in the world than bad, and even if it’s not true it certainly makes the world a more hopeful place to live in.

It is my considered opinion that the human race (soi disant) is cruel, idiotic, sentimental, predatory, ungrateful, ugly, conceited and egocentric to the last ditch and that the occasional discovery of an isolated exception is as deliciously surprising as finding a sudden brazil nut in what you know to be five pounds of vanilla creams. These glorious moments, although not making life actually worth living, perhaps, at least make it pleasanter.”
― Noël Coward

Photo Credits

Photo One by Taken by Deathworm at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3580398

Photo Two By M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas – M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas (2012) “Pollination Requirements and the Foraging Behavior of Potential Pollinators of Cultivated Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl.) Trees in Central Amazon Rainforest” Psyche vol. 2012 doi:10.1155/2012/978019 Figure 2, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22391398

Photo Three by Edrei Quek at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154959741085289&set=gm.1874856789457566&type=3&theater

Photo Four By Lior Golgher – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3231673

Photo Five By brian.gratwicke – Agouti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20397416

Photo Six from https://receitas.globo.com/bolo-de-castanha-do-para-541ba02e4d38850a15000093.ghtml

Photo Seven by By Nando cunha – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15650550

New Scientist – Flexible Spiders, Electric Fish and the Deepest Microbes Ever Found

A Water Web (Photo by Darko Cotoras)

Dear Readers, there are some amazing articles in New Scientist this week. First up, scientist Darko Cotoras of the California Institute of Sciences in San Francisco has found that a tiny spider found only on Cocos Island, off the coast of Central America, can make three different types of web according to the circumstances in which it finds itself.

Wendilgarda galapagagensis makes ‘aerial’ webs high above ground, attached to nearby stems and leaves. Near to the ground it makes ‘land’ webs, with long horizontal strands attached to branches, and with vertical strands anchored to the ground. Over pools it makes ‘water’ webs, like the ones in the photo, with the vertical strands attached to the water surface itself.

Cotoras wondered if this meant that the spider was actually turning into three separate species. However, when the spiders were relocated, they often started to build webs in the style that was most suited to their new home. In other words, these tiny invertebrates are not limited to just one web (which seems to be the case with many spiders) but can adapt according to circumstances. This seems to me to contradict one theory, which is that island animals adapt to occupy a very specific niche and are hence threatened if things change.

You can read the whole article here.

Juvenile Brown Ghost Knifefish (Apteronatus leptorhynchus) (Photo by Guy L’Hereux)

Brown Ghost Knifefish are found in the rivers of Colombia, and have a surprisingly complicated social structure. They use electric discharges to find food in the silty water, and to communicate with one another, and until 2016 little was known about them. Then scientist Till Raab and his colleagues at the University of Tübingen in Germany found a group of more than 30 fish in an area only 9 metres square. However, Raab noticed that there was little fighting between the fish, and wanted to examine what was going on.

In captivity, it was found that when a fish was denied access to a shelter by a competitor, the fish responded by targeting the other fish with electric pulses, which gradually increased in discharge before falling back to normal. The subordinate fish seemed to be deliberately provoking the fish who had control of the shelter into chasing and biting it. Although this didn’t result in a change of ownership, it did seem to improve the social standing of the subordinate fish, and over time seems to have ‘evened out’ the relationships between the fish. One fish that made repeated ‘attacks’ on the dominant fish eventually ended up with control of the shelter (one imagines a weary fish deciding that control of a piece of tubing wasn’t worth all this aggro).

Of course, the mere fact of being in captivity will have an influence on behaviour in any animal. However, what this does seem to illustrate is that fish are as capable of weighing up the delicate nuances of social relationships as any mammal.

You can read the whole article here.

The Chinese Continental Scientific Drilling Project (Image by Qin Wang et al)

And finally, here is something truly incredible. Scientists Hailiang Dong at the China University of Geosciences and Li Huang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have discovered bacterial cells from a 5.1 kilometre-deep borehole in Eastern China (the Chinese Continental Scientific Drilling Project or CCSD). Previously, the deepest known microbes on land were nematodes found 3.6 kilometres deep in a South African gold mine.

At this depth, temperatures are a staggering 137 degrees Centigrade, far above the accepted threshold of 122 degrees Centigrade. Scientists now believe that temperature might not be the only factor involved – the pressure, the physical nature of the rocks and the availability of water might also play a role.

Proving that the cells are alive will be another problem – organisms living at this depth often have an extremely low rate of metabolism because of the poor availability of nutrients. However, experiments with deep sea organisms have revealed that, if fed, they often ‘wake up’ with surprising enthusiasm. It will be interesting to see what approach is taken with these new microbes.

One reason that finds like these are so exciting is that it greatly increases the range of habitats on other planets where life might be possible. But for me, a second reason is that it demonstrates the extraordinary versatility of life. It gives me hope that, even if we screw things up irredeemably on the surface, we might not wipe out life completely. Of course, we won’t be here to see it if things go that wrong but maybe, in millions of year time, the next inhabitants of earth won’t be quite so feckless with the planet that they inherit.

You can read the whole article here.

Goings on in the Garden

Dear Readers, every day this week I have been woken up by the sound of cackling. Magpies rarely land in the garden – it’s a little bit too small for them to comfortably take-off, big inflexible lummoxes that they are – and so they usually settle for a quick smash and grab on the bird table.  However, I have been throwing out some live mealworms on the ground for the robins, and they often hide under the mulch (I like to give the poor things a sporting chance).

These two are adults, but quite young I think, and I suspect that they’re nesting somewhere close by. I’m not absolutely delighted by this, as I know they can take nestlings and eggs, but nature is it what it is. And they are superb birds to look at, with their iridescent tails and wings. And they are so intelligent. I’m not surprised that they’ve realised that there are easy pickings at Casa Bugwoman.

The photos were all taken through my kitchen window which hasn’t had a proper clean for a while because there are False Widow Spiders living in the window frame. Apologies for the slight fuzziness, but our eight-legged friends must come first, you know.

I also noticed the magpie giving the pond what my mother would have called ‘an old-fashioned look’ – the frogs are just getting going, and if they stray too close to the edge I suspect they’ll get exploratory stab. On the subject of which…..

Lovely Readers, I have a question for you. What could I plant around the edge of the pond that would provide some cover for frogs who are coming and going from the pond at this time of year? In a month or so it will be packed with greenery (and it’s fine for when the little frogs leave) but any amphibians arriving or leaving at this time of year have to run a pretty bare gauntlet. Ideally I’d like something that is wildlife friendly in other ways too, and which has lots of greenery by February. All suggestions eagerly considered!

Anyhow, it isn’t just the magpies who are enjoying the garden. There was a robin belting out his challenge as the sun slowly faded yesterday. I love the long shadows and the golden light at this time of year.

And here’s a great tit…

And how about the blue tits?  A pair of them checked out my sparrow nesting boxes again yesterday, but I’m sure the entrance is too large for them.

So the pace of life is really hotting up. I’m glad I’ve got suet pellets under the stairs and worms in the shed, because everything is just about to kick off. Looks like maybe, just maybe, we got through winter.

A Late February Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, at this time of the year the pace of change is almost too quick to keep up with. Every time I go to the cemetery it feels new-minted. This week, the blossom on what I think is a Japanese crab apple (though glad to be told otherwise) is just opening from tight, dark-pink buds.

And finally there is a flush of green on the swamp cypress, right at the very top where the twigs get the most sun.

There are blue tits everywhere, pecking over the twigs for hibernating insects

The snowdrops are going over…

….but the daffodils are coming out.

I love this path through the trees…

I hear a buzzard calling, but can’t spot it. All the other birds can though – the crows are up in arms in an instant.

I love the loop around Kew Road. These are among the least trodden roads, which is probably why I enjoy them so much. This grave is full of spring flowers – crocuses and miniature daffodils.

Last week’s early crocuses are still going strong, and are being visited by honeybees and bumblebees. I always thought that my back garden would be too shady for crocuses, but these don’t seem to mind the dappled light. Maybe Crocus tommasinianus would be just the thing after all.

The primroses are out as well.

And so are the first scillas. How intensely blue these flowers are! Almost as blue as gentians.

And finally, I have always been intrigued by this grave, largely because of the unusual name ‘Syssyllt’. The Honourable Syssyllt Avis Gurney was the daughter of Frederic George Morgan, 5th Baron Tredegar, which is an estate in Monmouthshire, Wales, dating to 1859. Syssyllt seems to have been a Welsh family name, and the lady herself was extremely well-travelled, and well-heeled – she lived on Charles Street, which is close to Berkeley Square in Mayfair, and I have passenger lists which show her arriving in Bristol from Bermuda in 1948 and travelling to Port Said in Egypt in 1930. In 1932 she left Rangoon in what was then Burma to travel back to the UK, but there was also a voyage to Colombo in Sri Lanka in the same year. Goodness, what was she up to? It’s very frustrating not to know more of the story. She seems to have spent some of her later years in Aberdeenshire, but was back in London when she died. Interestingly (to me anyway), Gurney was in correspondence with Compton Mackenzie who wrote ‘Whisky Galore’ for over twenty years. If you want to see the letter where he explains what his inspiration for the book came from you can see it here.

What I can’t find is anything about her career, or her life. Right Honourable usually refers to a Member of Parliament, but I can’t see anything about that aspect of her life. Her grave is in a lovely spot, and I always wonder about her whenever I pass by, as I do about so many of the graves that I pass. On a beautiful sunny day like today, it’s easier to feel not downcast but uplifted here, to think about all the lives that have come before, how rich and interesting they seem, and about how all of our stories will one day come to this, all sound and fury spent. We all contribute to the extraordinary richness of history, even if we don’t realise it.

 

 

Saturday Quiz – Wasp, Moth, Bee or Fly?

Title Photo by Siga, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, this week I have decided to see if we know how to tell the difference between a bee, a wasp, a moth and a fly. Not as easy as you might think, with all this mimicry going on! And I wonder how many hornet hoverflies have been walloped with a rolled-up newspaper, having been mistaken for their cousins (not that you should be walloping actual hornets, obviously).

I personally think this is megatricky (a word I just made up), so here are a few hints:

  • There are 3 photos in each category (wasp, bee, fly, moth)
  • The antennae, the eyes, the number of wings are all useful for categorisation.

As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. on Thursday 4th March (UK time) if you want to be marked. I will ‘hide’ answers when I see them, but if you don’t want to be influenced, you might want to write your answers down first.

‘Just’ look at the photos below, and decide if the animal shown is a wasp, a bee, a moth or a fly. I will give an extra point if you can identify the species (some of these are very unusual).

So, if you think the creature in Photo One is a fly, your answer is 1) Fly.

Onwards!

Photo One by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

1)

Photo Two by Hectonichus, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2)

Photo Three by André Karwath aka Aka, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

3)

Photo Four by jp hamon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4)

Photo Five by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

5)

Photo Six by By Ian Kimber - Photo by Ian Kimber of ukmoths.org.uk who kindly granted permission by e-mail to use under a GFDL and/or CC-BY-SA license., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1313245

6)

Photo Seven by Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

7)

Photo Eight by By Bruce Marlin - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=662209

8)

Photo Nine by Lamiot, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9)

Photo Ten by By Algirdas - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1803749

10)

Photo Eleven by Slimguy, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

11)

Photo Twelve by M kutera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

12)

Saturday Quiz – Pond Life – The Answers!

Dear Readers, I always make it tough for myself when I don’t do a multiple-choice quiz! For this week’s quiz, I’ve given a full mark where the animal was identified to species level where this was possible – so for Question  5, ‘dragonfly’ got a half-mark, ‘Broad-bodied Chaser’ got a full mark. The results are in, and this week Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus triumphed with 15/15, with Fran and Bobby Freelove with 12.5/15 and Clare with 11/15, a sterling effort from everybody! Well done, and let’s see what pops up on Saturday….

What animal is shown in each of these photos?

Photo One from https://biodynamicgardening.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/toad-spawn.jpg

1) Toadspawn from Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

Photo Two by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

2) Water hog louse (Asellus aquaticus)

Photo Three by Аимаина хикари, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

3) Great Ramshorn Snail (Planobarius corneus)

Photo Four by I, Anevrisme, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

4.Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris)

Photo Five by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38292525

5. Broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) – Male

Photo Six by Bj.schoenmakers, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

6) Pond Olive Mayfly (Cloeon dipterum)

Photo Seven by © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7. Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)

Photo Eight by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42069905

8. Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

Photo Nine by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9.Great Diving Beetle (Dytiscus marginalis)

Photo Ten by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

10.Whirligig Beetle (Gyrinus substriatus)

Photo Eleven by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

11.Common pondskater (Notonecta glauca)

Photo Twelve by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

12. Lesser Water Boatman (Corixa punctata)

Photo Thirteen by (Image: James Gathany, CDC), CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

13. Mosquito larvae (Culex pipiens)

Photo Fourteen by Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

14.Red Water Mite (Eylais sp.)

Photo Fifteen by Dieter Ebert, Basel, Switzerland, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

15.Water Flea (Daphnia sp.)

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://biodynamicgardening.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/toad-spawn.jpg

Photo Two by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Аимаина хикари, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by I, Anevrisme, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38292525

Photo Six by Bj.schoenmakers, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by  © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Eight by By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42069905

Photo Nine by Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eleven by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twelve by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Thirteen by (Image: James Gathany, CDC), CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fourteen by Donald Hobern from Copenhagen, Denmark, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fifteen by Dieter Ebert, Basel, Switzerland, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons