Monthly Archives: April 2014

Wednesday Weed – Shepherd’s Purse

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Shepherd's Purse

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Shepherd’s Purse is one of those straggly  white-flowered weeds that grow at the bottom of walls, or in amongst the roots of city trees. It gets its name from its seed-pods, which are shaped like the leather pouches carried in medieval times, hung by draw-strings from the belt. The name also gives a clue to the length of time that it has been in the UK, for this little plant is a long way from home. It originated in Eastern Europe and Asia minor, but has been with us for a long time – it is considered to be an archaeophyte in the UK, which means that it came here prior to 1492. Plants which came along after this date are known as neophytes.

Like many so-called ‘weeds’, Shepherd’s Purse is an annual, and flowers almost all year round, the seed scattering far and wide from those heart-shaped seed pouches.

Shepherd's Purse Seedhead

Shepherd’s Purse Seedhead

There can be several generations of Shepherd’s Purse in a year, and the seeds can also survive for a long time in the soil, making it an ideal plant for an urban environment. When conditions are right, it will proliferate. When times are hard, the seeds will wait for better times to arrive. Once you have noticed Shepherd’s Purse, you will see it everywhere, going about its modest business without any ostentation. Yet, it has been used in a variety of ways all over the world.

Shepherd's Purse (the long straggly plant with the white flowers)

Shepherd’s Purse (the long straggly plant with the white flowers)

Shepherd’s Purse is a member of the cabbage family, and in many parts of the world it is actively grown as a food plant. It is increasing in popularity in this country as a foraged addition to salads, and in Japan is part of a ceremonial barley and rice gruel that is eaten on January 7th (for more details, have a look here). Although in cities it rarely reaches more than a few inches high, in rich soil, or when cultivated, it can grow into a more substantial plant, up to two feet high, with bigger, juicier leaves.

Shepherd’s Purse has also been used medicinally – a tea made from the plant is described as a ‘sovereign remedy’ against haemorrhage, especially of the kidneys. In Germany, the plant has been approved for use against nose-bleeds, pre-menstrual syndrome, wounds and burns. During the First World War, the herb was used in Germany to stop bleeding after other, more conventional remedies became unavailable.

Finally, the seeds of the plant are much loved by small birds, and I have watched sparrows hopping along the wall at the end of my street, pecking up the little ‘purses’.

This inoffensive, useful little plant is all around us, and yet, we have no respect whatsoever for it. This is the scene that greeted me a few days ago when I wandered up to the High Street:

Dying Shepherd's Purse

Dying Shepherd’s Purse and other ‘weeds’

Someone had decided to spray all the little weeds growing at the foot of the wall beside Kentucky Fried Chicken. I’m not sure whether it’s the council, or the staff from KFC. I suspect the former – Barnet Council ‘gardeners’ have a zero-tolerance policy towards anything that isn’t a rose bush or a petunia. All these micro-habitats gone. All those seeds poisoned. I just hope that the sparrows have the sense not to eat them.

My one consolation is that I doubt it will be long before the Shepherd’s Purse is back. There will be seeds in the soil, just waiting for the toxins to die down. In the battle between man and plant, my money is always on the plant.

 

 

 

Slugs and Snails

 

Things that go squelch in the night....

Things that go squelch in the night….

Dear Reader, I wonder what you get up to on a wet Friday evening? I am fairly sure that what you won’t be doing is standing in your back garden with a camera, while your husband shines a torch onto a small gathering of garden snails beside the water butt. But as I gazed out of my kitchen window yesterday, I was astonished to see a positive molluscan invasion taking place, as a wide variety of slugs and snails eased themselves out of their cozy nooks and headed across the patio.

The slugs started to emerge before it was even dark, with one intrepid individual making his way to the bird table at about five o’clock.

A Large Black Slug (Arion ater)

A Large Black Slug (Arion ater)

Now, the first thing that you might notice is that the slug above is not, in fact, black. This is what’s known as the red form, and is by far the commonest slug in my garden. The dainty tomato-red skirt is the giveaway, and when disturbed, the slug bunches itself up into a tight little mound until you go away.  Here, s/he (for slugs are hermaphrodite) is tucking into a suet pellet, knocked to the floor by a boisterous starling. This is a clue to the way that these creatures feed – they are not interested in your new carrot seedlings or your tender plantlets, preferring decaying plant matter, carrion, and dung. For those of you in other parts of the country, this is what a Large Black Slug looks like when it’s actually black:

Large Black Slug - Black form

Large Black Slug – Black form

I’ve seen these slugs in Devon, and I thought that they were rather beautiful, as they made their stately way down the road after a shower. They seem to have been carved out of coal.

Now, the slug below is also innocent of vegetable munching:

Bourguignat's Slug

Bourguignat’s Slug – Arion circumscriptus

It’s difficult to see on the photo, but this slug has a speckled back, and when interrupted in its mission, it contracts into a characteristic bell-shape when viewed from the end. Bourguignat’s Slug, again, feeds largely on decaying matter.

So, in my garden, there is only one real culprit in the case of the missing angelica (chewed to the ground within two days of planting), or the disappearing borage mystery (there one day, gone the next).

Yes, I'm talking to you.

Yes, I’m talking to you.

The Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum, grows fine and healthy in my garden, and by night can be seen advancing at considerable speed towards the plants. There is nothing that s/he likes better than the evening after I’ve been to the garden centre.S/he is the cause of more bad language than any other creature in the garden (apart from the little black cat that keeps harrassing my frogs).

And yet. What an extraordinary creature s/he is. When it got too dark and the rain started up again, I brought a selection of slugs and snails into the kitchen, to see if I could get some photos and make sure that I had the species right. The slugs sat sadly at the bottom of the tray, resigned to fate. The snail had other ideas.

The Great Escape....

The Great Escape….

The snail soon unfurled from its shell and decided to make a break for it. When I tried to pick it up and put it back , the suction from its foot was so strong that I lifted the whole tray, slugs and all. I decided to watch it make its way around the rim, and found myself fascinated by the way that it used its eye stalks to try to work out what was going on. The eyes are fairly basic but enable the snail to tell dark from light, and, coupled with the lower sensory organs (which can smell and taste) the snail is able to explore its environment very efficiently.

It’s known that snails can find their way home from a considerable distance (certainly from several hundred metres) so this story amused me. Throwing snails into your neighbour’s garden is not only rude, but ineffective.

Last year, I found this snail wandering across the path.

Brown-lipped Banded Snail

Brown-lipped Banded Snail

These are much less common in my garden, but how exquisite they are, banded in strawberry-pink and chocolate-brown. These snails cause very little damage, and in Dorset, where my parents live, they seem to be the dominant kind, appearing in every possible combination of brown and yellow, white and green.

Most people loathe the poor slug, harmless or not. Our relationship with snails is more ambivalent. Many children love their slowness, the way that they can disappear within their shells, the way that their eyes peer around myopically. Yet, they too can wreak havoc, especially in the vegetable garden.

As I looked at the snail in my kitchen, who was now heading towards the butter dish with a surprising turn of speed, I knew that I was going to live and let live, in spite of the plant damage. Anything that I did to the Garden Snails would also kill all the other molluscs who were actually helping by tidying up the garden. And whenever I visit the garden after dark, I hear the plop-plop of frogs diving back into the pond, disturbed in the middle of a slug and snail hunting spree. How can I risk hurting the frogs?

These are all very rational reasons for not declaring biocide on the Garden Snails, but there was something else. I realised that I had never really looked at a snail before. ‘My’ snail seemed to be a determined individual, exploring the environment with all the senses at its disposal. S/he moved with a sinous grace, rising up, bowing down, all the time gliding along on a single muscular foot, seemingly without effort. I was entranced by the gyrating eye-stalks, the way that the lower tentacles extended and retracted in a kind of ballet.

Once I have truly seen any creature, I can’t find it in myself to want to destroy it.

 

Wednesday Weed – Herb Robert

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Herb-Robert (Geramium robertianum)

Herb-Robert (Geramium robertianum)

Herb-Robert (named after a medieval monk who used it as part of his medicine chest)  is a kind of geranium or cranesbill, pretty enough to be included in the Royal Horticultural Society’s list of plants to buy. It is a low-growing, delicate plant, with a mass of small five-petalled pink flowers. As it matures, the stems turn deepest scarlet, which may give rise to one of its many vernacular names, Red Robin. It is a native of the UK, and is yet another urban plant that, in other habitats, prefers shingle and poor soil.

In the US, it is known as Stinky Bob, for a reason that will become apparent as soon as you pick off a leaf and rub it between your fingers. The smell has been described, variously, as ‘mousy’, and ‘like rubber tyres’. I lean towards the second interpretation personally, and if you have never had the Herb-Robert perfume experience, I recommend it – once you have smelt that very particular odour, you will never forget it.

As I surveyed the information available on the internet, two things became apparent. Firstly, this plant has become something of an invasive nuisance in Australia and North America, to which it was no doubt introduced by homesick English gardeners. In Washington State, for example, it is classified as a ‘noxious and invasive weed’. There are reports of trials of herbicides applied with a ‘CO2-pressurized backpack sprayer with a 5 -nozzle boom’. Not surprisingly, the Herb-Robert mortality rate was reported as ‘100%’. No mention is made of any other plants or creatures unfortunate enough to have been sharing the space.

Secondly, Herb-Robert tea is often cited as a cure for everything from cancer to Parkinson’s Disease.  Traditionally, Herb-Robert was used to cure toothache and nosebleeds, and the leaves, rubbed on the skin, are said to deter mosquitoes. The crushed leaves are also used as a way of keeping deer and rabbits away from crops. However, there are stories, from all over the world, of people using this plant to treat tumours. The scientific reason given is that Herb-Robert is a good source of organic Germanium, an element which helps the oxygen uptake in the body. The American Cancer Society suggests that there is no evidence to support this, and that Germanium can be toxic, though they do say that the levels in plants are not normally high enough to cause any harm.

As in all things, this is not a clear-cut situation. Maybe using Herb-Robert could be dangerous: the chemicals in plants are just as ‘real’ as the ones that are used in chemotherapy. Just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean that it will be less efficacious, or less toxic, than something that comes out of a hospital syringe. But so many of the substances that we now use as medicines came originally from plants: aspirin from the willow and digitalis from foxgloves are just two examples. Plus, there is now so much  money tied up in the drugs industry that the thought of people using something cheap and uncontrolled to treat themselves may well give the corporate world a collective nervous breakdown.  Who is to say that there is not something in this little pink plant which is efficacious? It certainly made me look at it with a new curiosity and respect.

Herb-Robert from the Flora Batava of Jan Kops (1765-1849)

Herb-Robert from the Flora Batava of Jan Kops (1765-1849)

 

 

The Forgotten Bees

Hi Everybody, I’m travelling tomorrow, so here’s my weekly blogpost a little early….BugWoman.

A male Spring Flower Bee on Bowle's Mauve perennial wallflower

A male Spring Flower Bee on Bowle’s Mauve perennial wallflower – my only photo!

Spring is a lovely time for pollinator-watching. For the last few mornings I’ve taken my breakfast smoothie out to my south-facing front garden to see what creatures are about. Sometimes, I optimistically take my camera, although not all flying insects are as laid-back and cooperative as the bumblebee queens who drone slowly from one wallflower blossom to another.

The first thing that I noticed this morning was that there were bees flying around with their tongues sticking out.From the side they looked like little horseback knights, determined to skewer every flower with their lance. One bee was a frosty grey, with a white face.

A decent shot of a male Spring Flower bee, By Pancrat (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A decent shot of a male Spring Flower bee, By Pancrat (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


I lurched from one terracotta pot to another trying to get a good shot of him, but he was a nervous bee, darting from one blossom to another. I recognised him as a Spring (or Hairy-Footed) Flower Bee, which although European in origin was introduced to the US in the twentieth century, and is one of the few bee species that we share. This bee doesn’t make a nest or hive, but is one of the many species of solitary bees – the females do all the hard work, excavating a tunnel in clay soil, filling it with a pollen and nectar ball, and then laying a single egg on each mass. The male only needs to feed himself and find females to mate with. I got one mediocre shot of him (as you can see at the beginning of the post), and settled down to wait to see if a female would turn up.

In many bees there are differences between the male and the female. Few bee sexes are so completely different as the Spring Flower Bee, however. As I set on the doorstep, camera in hand, greeting the neighbours with a cheery wave as they sidled past with some alarm, I suddenly saw a female appear.

Female Spring Flower Bee - note the extended tongue!

Female Spring Flower Bee – note the extended tongue!

Female Spring Flower Bees are jet black. They also often fly with their tongues out, but other than this I’m sure you would not know that they were the same species as the males. My bee did a couple of high loops over the wallflowers and grape hyacinth, and then she did something that I always find a little unnerving. She hovered in front of me, and I had a sense that she was trying to work out what I was.It’s hard enough for us to imagine what it would be like to see through those compound eyes, without thinking our way into the brain behind them. Yet, I had a sense of being appraised for threat value. It was as if she was scanning me. What could she detect? Bees can see into the ultra-violet part of the spectrum where we can’t go. Could she sense the heat of my body? She could certainly pick up movement – when I reached slowly for my camera, she wheeled away, then came back for a further look, hovering at head height. We looked at one another in mutual incomprehension, two creatures that share the majority of our DNA and yet are utterly other to one another. Then, with a flick, she was gone.


Later, in the back garden, I saw other female Spring Flower Bees. They all had this characteristic pattern of hovering, appraising, flying away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a manoeuvrable and speedy bee. In the end, I lay my camera down and just watched them as they went about their business, the orange of the pollen in the baskets on their legs contrasting with their midnight fur.

Fabulous photo of female Spring Flower Bee in flight, thanks to By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fabulous photo of female Spring Flower Bee in flight, thanks to By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Back in the front garden, I noticed another little bee that often goes unremarked. This species is about the size of a honey bee, but has a foxy-red thorax.  This is an Early Mining Bee, and in my part of London it’s very common. I watched it feeding and remembered the time when I first noticed them.

Early Mining Bee - By Sandy Rae (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Early Mining Bee – By Sandy Rae (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When we first dug our pond, there was a big area of loose soil at one end, which we were waiting to plant. One day, I noticed that there was a lot of activity there, lots of little flying insects coming and going. I crouched closer for a look, and saw that there were thirty or forty little bees digging their way into the earth. Off I ran for my guide to Garden Wildlife, and sure enough, these were Early Mining Bees. I had never seen one before in my life but here they were. Each bee digs a tunnel and then lays a single egg in it, sealing the entrance with mud and flying away.

Early Mining Bee in her nest tunnel - thanks to Simon Connolly of www.gardenofireland.com. A lovely blog, well worth a vist...

Early Mining Bee in her nest tunnel – thanks to Samuel Connolly of http://www.gardenofireland.com. A lovely blog, well worth a visit…

As the days went by, more and more bees arrived. At one point, I counted seventy before my head was so full that I couldn’t count any more. They had recognised a suitable habitat and were taking advantage of it. It was serendipity at its best – I hadn’t planned to make a decent bee habitat in this way, but it turned out that it was one. I would sit on the steps and watch the bees coming and going.

All this activity did not go unnoticed. As I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen one day, I saw a magpie land with a great flurry of wings and cackling. It hopped over to where the bees were hard at work, and turned its head this way and that. It flicked its wings once or twice, then jumped into the air and caught an unfortunate bee. The magpie had obviously caught bees before, as it smashed the insect on the step once or twice to loosen the sting. Then, it gulped the bee down, considered for a moment and flew away. Obviously, it didn’t make for good eating, and the rest of the bees were allowed to complete their work in peace.

Things are so transitory. In less than a week, the bees had done their work and disappeared. What followed was the wettest spring for years. The level of the pond rose, and many of the bee nests would have been inundated. The plants grew until the little patch of soil was no longer bare. But this morning, with the sight of the Early Mining Bee in the front garden, I wondered if maybe a few of the eggs had survived.

We are sometimes so anxious about honey bees that we forget about our many, many native pollinators, the unnoticed army of solitary bees and hoverflies and bumblebees that perform a variety of ministrations for our crops and garden plants. Each one has its own lifecycle, its own unique behaviour. All it takes is a few bee-friendly flowers, or a patch of open ground to attract not just the usual insects, but the unusual ones as well.

 

The London Plane

A London Plane tree on East Finchley High Street

A London Plane tree on East Finchley High Street

It has been estimated that over 50% of the street trees in the capital are London Plane trees. Robust, pollution resistant and able to survive the root compaction that occurs under roads and pavements, they go largely unnoticed, in spite of their enormous size – the largest trees are over 130 feet tall, with trunks ten feet in circumference. They have grown to such a size slowly – they can live to for over two hundred years (Kew has one which was planted in the 1770’s). Many now have an uncomfortably cramped and oversized appearance, like a flamingo in a bird cage.

The bark of the London Plane is one of the reasons for its ability to survive the toxins that it encounters from diesel fumes and atmospheric pollution. The bark of the tree is shed regularly, taking the poison with it,  and this leaves the trunk with a paint-by-numbers look – organic shapes of beige and green grey and khaki.

London Plane bark

London Plane bark

I remember the one and only field trip that we did when I was in primary school. Our class, a bunch of scalliwags and urchins, went  across the road to West Ham Park in the East End of London. We were looking at the trees to see whereabouts on the trunk the green algae grew most thickly. After compiling our notes, it was clear that the algae much preferred the north side, and it was the first time that I ever realised that nature was not only interesting, but helpful. Imagine my delight when I looked at the Plane trees on the High Street and saw that exactly the same was true, nearly forty-five years later. Algae is not fond of direct sunlight, and so prefers the shadier side of life, as does moss. The bark above is on the north side of a tree. The picture below shows the south side of the same tree:

South Side of the tree

South Side of the tree

Or, for another comparison:

North facing side of the trunk

North facing side of the trunk

South side of the same tree

South side of the same tree

You could find your way by these trees, the green sheen on only one side showing you your true north. There are so many forgotten ways of wayfaring, so many natural maps. Just knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west can help. Knowing that buttercups grow in the wettest places can save you from soaking your plimsolls. Knowing that horseradish grows in pasture grazed by horses can give you an insight into who might possibly be lurking just behind that hedge.

Nature gives us a thousand words to read, but we are mostly illiterate. All that I’ve learned, I’ve learned from those who went before me, my parents and grandmother, and from looking carefully, and from reading books. I know a tiny fragment of what there is to know, but when I find something out I squirrel it away. You never know when it’s going to be useful.

On the other side of the crossroads, the Plane trees have been pollarded.

Pollarded Tree

Pollarded Tree

Young men in safety harnesses pulled themselves up to the top branches and attacked all the little branchlets with a chainsaw a few months ago. To start with, the trees looked ugly and angry, the ends of their branches clenched into fists, like giants performing a war dance. Now, long twigs are starting to appear like thin fingers, and soon there will be leaves, although London plane trees are late to leaf.

These trees have been pollarded every couple of years, for their entire lives. The belief is that limiting the crown will limit the spread of the roots, because this is what the council fears – that the roots will infiltrate their million little rootlets into sewers and into the conduits of telephone lines and electricity cables. They also fear that, uncorrected, the branches will crash down onto passing cars, or take out the windows of double-decker buses. However, the trees are benevolent and respond to their regular mutilation by growing taller and leafier with each passing year.

Plane trees are a blessing in the summer. Their heavy shade cools those who sit underneath them. Trees can reduce the temperature in urban areas by several degrees, simply because they transpire – they pump water vapour into the atmosphere which acts to cool the air.

However, they are also something of an ecological desert. They are not native to the UK, being a hybrid of an American and an Asian plane tree, and so, although crows and squirrels may make an occasional nest or drey in their topmost branches, although woodpigeons may court amongst the new spring leaves, they have few creatures that actually depend on them. Compared to an oak, or an aspen, or an elm, they are sterile – big, leafy, predictable but, in all truth, a little dull.

The London Plane next to East Finchley Station

The London Plane next to East Finchley Station

Some councils have started to replace the Plane trees, as they die, with other species. There are a lot of members of the cherry family, for example, lots of rowan trees. These are much daintier and smaller proportioned, with blossom in the spring, and berries for the birds. It is hard to disagree with the choice, but they are not as hefty as the trees that they replace, and will not provide the same degree of shade and cooling. Plus, history will tell whether they will have the Plane tree’s remarkable resilience. Climate change is making these considerations more and more important.

The big disadvantage of the London Plane is its seeds.

Fruit of the London Plane Tree - thanks to InnocenceIsDeath for the photo

Fruit of the London Plane Tree – thanks to InnocenceIsDeath for the photo

The tree  produces spiky seed heads for much of the year, which look like the mace of a medieval knight. The seed heads burst open to reveal thousands of tiny fine seeds, which are implicated in hay fever and asthma. However, in a city as polluted as London (the official air pollution rating for the first part of this week is ten, as high as it can go) it’s always difficult to ascertain whether the reason that people are coughing and wheezing is the pollen or the particulates in the air.

So, the London Plane is a great whale of a tree, massive and mighty. Some of the trees on East Finchley High Street will have been there when it wasn’t cars coming up the hill but horse-drawn coaches, when there was a pig market behind the pub, when an incendiary bomb landed on Temple Road and killed fifty people. We are such temporary creatures, compared to trees.

A Detective Story

 

 My heart sank....

My heart sank….

I’m sure that any bird-lover will empathise with my reaction when I came back from a few days with my parents to see this scene of carnage in the garden. I often fear that, by providing food, I am luring some creatures into danger. I position the feeders and birdtable so that it isn’t easy for birds to be ambushed, but clearly something serious has happened here.

The feathers are just by the edge of the pond, so I imagine that the bird was attempting to drink when something made a grab for it. However, there is no corpse. I crouch down to have a closer look, and see if I can piece events together.

First, I want to see if I can identify which kind of bird these feathers belong to. It’s clearly a largish bird, probably some kind of pigeon. I find a small clump of soft feathers, tinged with a pinkish blush. The colour tells me that they belong to a woodpigeon. The nature of the feathers, their soft fluffiness, tells me that they are from the breast. There are a lot of them.

Woodpigeon breast feathers

Woodpigeon breast feathers

Mixed amongst the breast feathers, which come very easily out of the flesh, are the flight feathers, which don’t.

Tail feather

Tail or wing feather

Woodpigeons have a black stripe at the end of the tail, and black primary feathers in the wing.

Black feathers on the wings and tail

Black feathers on the wings and tail

I imagine the bird flying up in a panic, its assailant jumping up at it and sweeping at it with a hooked claw.

So, my initial assumption was that a woodpigeon had been surprised by a cat. Judging by the volume of feathers, it was quite a fight. There is no blood, so maybe the bird got away, or maybe it was simply carried away to be tortured and eaten elsewhere. There is, however, one other possible explanation.

Sparrowhawk

This sparrowhawk (photo taken by Eddy Van 3000) is feeding on what looks like a sparrow (appropriately enough). When I saw the sparrowhawk in my garden, I was too gobsmacked to run for the camera.

Just before Christmas, I opened the kitchen door to find a sparrowhawk glaring at me with great psychotic orange eyes. It had its talons embedded in a dead woodpigeon. I shut the door, and it turned back to its task of plucking its prey, tearing out the soft feathers of the breast which fell back on to the patio like snowflakes. I ran upstairs to get my husband and we both goggled at this strange visitor until, with more irritation than fear, it clutched the corpse of the woodpigeon with the talons of one foot and, with two or three strong downstrokes of its dappled wings, swerved over the garden fence and off, to eat its prey in peace.

Was this enormous pile of feathers a sign that this enigmatic bird had returned, and plucked its prey on the stones by the pond?

Of course, I will never know. But although the end result for the woodpigeon is the same, my heart lifts when I think that maybe it died to feed a wild hunter, rather than fell victim to someone’s bored pet. As the bluebottles buzz over the feathers and the soft breast fluff blows away into the wallflowers, it humbles me to think of the drama that is happening every day in my tiny back garden, the lives lost, the stomachs filled, the territories fought over and the babies born. If I lived to be five hundred, I would never be short of something to write about. Feathers 002

 

 

Tadpoles Emerging

Tadpoles emerging 002As if they all received the signal at the same time, the tadpoles in my pond are emerging from the frogspawn. The surface of the water is a-wriggle with tiny tails as they try to break free from the confiness of the jelly that’s held them for the past few weeks.

The membrane that surrounds each egg allows the water from the pond to pass through it – this means that the embryos develop at the same rate, and will all hatch at the same time. There is safety in numbers for such little creatures, who at this stage can be eaten by anything from dragonfly larvae to diving beetles to water boatmen. It also helps to prevent cannibalism, which tadpoles are not averse to once they develop legs and become carnivorous.

In the film, you can see that there are some water snails hanging about – these have probably helped by cleaning any algae that started to grow on the frogspawn. In the bottom right-hand corner, though, there is a pond-skater – although it can’t eat a whole tadpole, it is quite capable of puncturing one and injuring it. Life is hard for frogs, right from the start.

Good luck, tadpoles. Out of all of this seething mass, one in a thousand will return next year to breed. The rest will sustain a whole generation of dragonflies and other aquatic insects. Nature is abundant, but rarely wasteful.