Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Passionate Woodpigeon

The woodpigeon looks like a gentle, inoffensive bird, but beneath those soft grey feathers lurks a passionate heart

The woodpigeon looks like a gentle, inoffensive bird, but beneath those soft grey feathers lurks a passionate heart

Woodpigeons have a soft, puffed-up appearance, like animated pillows. There is none of the sleekness of the feral pigeon, or the elegance of a collared dove. On a casual glance they seem to be mild-mannered and a little bumbling, a quintessentially Mr Micawberish bird. I can imagine falling asleep with my head on the breast of a giant woodpigeon. But beneath those soft, easily detachable feathers lies a heart filled with passionate feeling.

As I look out of my kitchen window, I see two woodpigeons on my seed feeder, one on each side. The feeder is at least half-full, but even so, the birds are spending more of their time attacking one another than feeding, pecking at one another viciously, first on one side of the plastic tube, then on the other.

Although the birds look identical to us, they can definitely tell one another apart. Sometimes, two birds will feed together in perfect harmony, other times there will be great discord, like today. The whole tree is shaking and I fully expect the feeder to drop off and crash to the ground.

When we first got our (now disintegrating) bird table, I was astonished by the assertiveness of the woodpigeons. When two landed together, they would stand up as tall as they possibly could, and glare at one another. If this didn’t sort out the matter, they would  flick the other bird with their wings, each blow lightning-fast, with an audible ‘click’. Each bird reminded me of a would-be duellist, striking his opponent around the face with a glove. If that didn’t work, the pigeons would fall to pecking one another, until one of them would, eventually, give up and fly away.

The only time I saw the woodpigeons bested was when the starlings and their fledglings emerged.

Go away, starling!

Go away, starling!

The pigeon would begin by pecking at any starling that approached too closely, but as more and more birds rained down like hail, sometimes landing on the pigeon’s back, he would become more and more agitated, wheeling round and round until there was more seed on the floor than on the table. It seems that numbers trump size, for the woodpigeon was a giant compared to the starlings and yet he was left flailing around impotently until, with what looked like a kind of despair, he retired to the whitebeam tree to wait them out.

Yet, there is a more joyful, tender side to the woodpigeon.

Amorous Woodpigeons By Jerzystrzelecki (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Amorous Woodpigeons By Jerzystrzelecki (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

While I was in Prague for business last week, I watched a male woodpigeon flying in a most peculiar way. With slow wingbeats he soared into the sky and then allowed himself to drop, before raising himself again and then falling through the air. At the top of the loop he would occasionally indulge in a wingclap. It was as if he was riding an invisible rollercoaster. Then, another bird appeared, and he started to fly more directly after her. When she landed on one of the poles that supported the wires for the trams ( her subsequent behaviour made me feel sure that she was female) he settled down beside her, cooing and turning back and forth, and sidling closer and closer to her. She seemed to be in two minds: she allowed him to preen her neck, closing her eyes, and started to crouch down, but as soon as he tried to mount her she flew away, as if panicked by her own wantonness. He followed her as she flew fast and low towards Petrin Hill, until they disappeared against the trees.

Some people call woodpigeons ‘greedy’ and try to dissuade them from their birdtables and feeders. To this, I can only say ‘have you seen the size of the creature?’ Of course woodpigeons eat a lot. They are big birds. They need a lot of seed to keep them going, and this seed is not always available, so they have to make the most of every opportunity.

A young woodpigeon clearing up the food on the birdtable

A young woodpigeon clearing up the food on the birdtable

When I was living in Islington I once found a woodpigeon collapsed in front of our flat. When I picked it up, I could feel how thin it was, with no flesh at all on that soft breast, and its toes twisted and convoluted like a Celtic knot. I put it in a box and headed off to our local vet, a kind man who didn’t turn up his nose at helping urban pigeons and foxes and squirrels. While I was waiting to see him, there was a sudden scratching from the box, and the woodpigeon died. I felt terrible. Had the shock of being captured been too much for it? The vet lifted it out, parted the feathers, looked at the feet.

‘It’s died of starvation’, he said, ‘and it also has a terrible case of bumblefoot – I’m sure it could hardly walk’.

So, I never begrudge the pigeons their sunflower seeds. I enjoy spying on their private lives and their dramas. Just because they are common, familiar birds doesn’t mean that I know or understand them. Like so many creatures that live alongside us, they have complex behaviours that we might never be able to interpret fully. Feeding them gives me the opportunity to get to know them better.

Wednesday Weed – Elder

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…..

Elder Blossom (Sambucus Nigra)

Elder Blossom (Sambucus nigra)

This week, I thought I would indulge myself by writing about Elder, one of my very favourite shrubs. I love the blowsy white blossoms  with their nose-prickling scent, half-way between gooseberry and cats pee. I love the dark berries in the autumn, and the enthusiasm of the starlings as they strip the shrub bare. I like the simple elegance of the leaves, and the fact that, unlike so many of the ‘weeds’ that I’ve been investigating, this one has been in England since records began.

Although the individual plants do not live very long, Elder feels venerable to me. It is a wild plant with real presence. Maybe it’s the weight of magical reference and practical use that gives it such heft. In some parts of the country, it was known as the Fairy Tree. If you burned it, you would see the devil, but grown by the house, it would keep the devil at bay. In the Middle Ages it became the tree on which Judas hanged himself, but it was also said to be the tree of the Cross.

In addition to being used for Elderberry wine and cordial, its branches have been used as switches to keep the flies from cattle on their way to market, and its stems, which are hollow, have been used as peashooters for generations (with an elderberry as a ‘bullet’ you can get a gratifyingly ‘bloody’ result).

Elderberries have been shown to be efficacious in treating flu, colds and congestion, and every part of the plant has been used in one way or another. But there is something about Elder that encourages me to be particularly respectful when I am cutting some blossom for cordial or harvesting berries. I almost expect it to reprove me if I  take more than I need, or behave with undue levity.

June Weeds Elder Rocket Mallow 006Not everyone agrees with me, however. Richard Mabey, in his magnum opus ‘Plants Britannica’, says:

‘It is hard to understand how this mangy, short-lived, opportunist and foul-smelling shrub was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of plants’.

Well, we’re all entitled to our opinion, but if I was Richard Mabey, I think I’d walk carefully around any Elders that I happened to meet.

 

The magical Elder

The magical Elder

 

Bugwoman on Location – Prague

The first of an occasional series in which Bugwoman investigates the urban wildlife of other cities.

Prague Owl Blog

I love how the ‘pigeon prevention measures’ on this owl prevent his cousins from using him as a perch, and give him a slightly bristly appearance

When in Prague, it’s a good idea to look up. This is not just because Prague has a long history of defenestrations, starting in 1419 when the Hussites threw the whole of the town council out of the window, but because there are many animals and other strange creatures looking down on the population from walls and doorways, pediments and capitals. Take this vulture and pelican, for example:

Prague Vulture BlogPrague Pelican Blogor indeed this rather wonderful goddess, crammed in between a couple of urns full of roses:

Prague Doorway 1BlogBut, picturesque as they are, I am strolling around Prague looking for other kinds of creatures. After a hard day wrestling with computer systems, I need something that reminds me of my place in the natural order of things.

On my first evening, I took a walk down to the bridge nearest to my hotel. Still more animals cropped up, although they were of a rather rough and ready nature. The area feels just a little seedy – there are all-night bars and gambling dens, and many polite but destitute people begging for a few coins. But it has a rugged charm that I rather like. People actually live here, and shop here. It isn’t the main tourist area. And, so far, it has been mercifully free of the hen and stag parties that turn the prettier parts of town into a vomit-strewn disaster area on Friday and Saturday night.

Prague Bulldog BlogPrague Ibex BlogI was on my way to see the ‘Dancing House’, or ‘Fred and Ginger building’ on the other side of the river. It was designed to look like two people dancing, and was very controversial when it was first built in 1996, because it wasn’t the same as all the other architecture. But what do you do with a vacant lot- build pastiche, or build something daring? I think that it’s charming, and completely unique.

Prague Fred and Ginger House blogAs I crossed the river, I noticed some wooden pilings on their sides in the water, forming a perfect roost for the intrepid Prague pigeons.Prague Pigeon long view blogThis is a very popular spot. Pigeons are bowing and cooing and drinking and settling down. They fly in very fast and very low, as if trying to get under some predatory radar. As they land, they often force the birds all ready in residence to make a speedy side-step.  I had seen some kestrels hovering overhead, but pigeons are too big for them to attack.

Prague Pigeons and Jackdaw BlogLooking at these photos later, I realise that some birds are actually making their nests in amongst the wood and debris. Yet again, I am filled with admiration for the adaptability and ingenuity of pigeons, who can take any urban niche and make a home of it.

The Prague Pigeon Roost

The Prague Pigeon Roost

And then, there are the jackdaws.

Prague Jackdaw BlogPrague is full of them, cackling and chinking and chuckling, playing games in the air. I wonder why a bird can be perfectly happy in one city, and non-existent in another? In London, the only place to see jackdaws in any numbers is Richmond Park – their ‘niche’ in the rest of the city is taken by crows, magpies and (increasingly) jays. But here in Prague they are the number one corvid, and have all the swagger and cheek of a much bigger bird.

Prague Jackdaws Blog

I crossed  back over the river, thinking about how life imitates nature:

Prague Swan Pedalo 2 BlogPrague Real Swans Blogand then headed back towards home. My feet were sore, my back ached, and I was in dire need of a small beer. But as I walked under the lime trees, and passed the most magnificent oak tree I’ve seen in a long time

Prague Oaktree BlogI noticed that under every tree there was an insect fiesta going on. Clouds of flying creatures were hovering and zapping and wheeling in a winged frenzy. I couldn’t see exactly what they were, but they had the feeling of moths or caddisflies. Maybe they had just emerged as adults, and were using this humid, limeblossom-scented evening to find a mate.

I found a little swarm and, much to the confusion of passing tourists, tried to capture them on film.

One little boy stopped to stare and, as his mother dragged him away, asked ‘Why is that lady filming that post box?’

As I headed back to my hotel room with its yellow curtains and  uncomfortable modern furniture, I realised that there was a spring in my step, a sense of being more settled and at home. I had seen some familiar creatures, like the pigeons and the swans, and my curiosity had been piqued by the dancers under the trees. Furthermore, I hadn’t thought about Purchase Order Processing or system errors once. There is nothing like spending time with plants and animals to take you out of your head, and into the stream of things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Bindweed

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…..

June Weeds Bindweed 001Few plants strike fear into the heart of the gardener like the Hedge Bindweed. Here it is having fun in the flower beds in front of Budgens on East Finchley High Street.

June Weeds Bindweed 004It is romping away over variegated foliage and pink roses, and is advancing towards the California Lilac, its long tendrils reaching out like lassoes. Only yesterday I noticed that my Comfrey was being dragged towards the fence by a Bindweed, and as I struggled to disentangle it, I noticed how strong the stems were, and how reluctant to give up their grip.

I have in my possession, courtesy of my Aunt Hilary, a 1913 edition of a botanical work called ‘The Flowers of the Field’, by the Reverend C. A Johns. Here’s what the author has to say about Hedge Bindweed:

‘In bushy places, common; and a most mischievous weed in gardens, not only exhausting the soil with its roots, but strangling with its twining stems the plants that grow nearby’.

A hundred years on, few of us would disagree. When I research the plants that I write about for the Wednesday Weed, most of them have some uses, medicinal or as food or for their position in the ecosystem. When I look for Bindweed, the first and often the only paragraph is about eradication.

And yet. Let’s have a closer look.

What do we have here?

What do we have here?

As I hang around outside Budgens with my camera, delaying further the moment when I have to go home and actually do some work, I notice a rather large bumblebee. By her size, she is a newly emerged queen, and she is buzzing from one Bindweed flower to another, ignoring the overbred roses in favour of those pristine white blossoms. And what blossoms they are! Pure white and the size of a baby’s fist. I  love the way that the buds are twisted into the calyx, like a dancer with her skirt swirled about her.

If it wasn’t quite such a thug, I’m sure we’d be welcoming Bindweed into our gardens to cover up those ugly sheds and water butts and north-facing walls. Other members of the Bindweed family, such as Morning Glory, are cultivated with some enthusiasm. But Hedge Bindweed is just a little too energetic for most people, with a lust for life that is as inspiring as it is terrifying. After human beings are gone I imagine Bindweed covering the derelict London office blocks as easily as it does these flowerbeds, climbing inexorably towards the sky.June Weeds Bindweed 006

 

The Tachinid Fly

A tachinid fly

A tachinid fly, Tachina fera

If you have ever spent time next to a pond, you will have seen these hyperactive creatures, sparring with one another in a most unfriendly manner. They are as stripey as wasps or hoverflies, but instead of hovering or buzzing, they dart and joust like little armoured knights. One minute they are sitting happily on a lilypad, the next they are flying a vicious skirmish with another fly, and then they settle down again, until the next interloper appears.

This species has no common name, but its Latin moniker is Tachina fera. It is usually found near water, and it has a great liking for water mint, although there is none in my pond (yet). There are more than eight thousand different species of Tachinid flies (with two hundred and seventy five species in the UK) but the one characteristic that they share is bristliness. In the picture of a Tachinid fly in my Garden Wildlife book there are bristles everywhere – on the legs, on the thorax and especially on the abdomen. I cannot report back on this from life as these flies are  speedy and elusive, zooming away at the first hint of vibration or shadow. However, here is an image showing how hairy these flies are when seen close up:

An extremely hairy fly By Siga (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

An extremely hairy fly By Siga (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

Tachina fera lays her eggs on the bodies of caterpillars, particularly those of noctuid moths. The eggs hatch, and parasitize the caterpillar. Once the fly emerges it seems to spend most of its time protecting its airspace, and I have never seen one feeding.

Tachinid Fly 4 BlogAs I watch the fly ‘patrolling’ its tiny ‘territory’, I realise that I have no idea at all what it is actually doing. I have made all kinds of statements about the darting about and sparring, but in truth I am just extrapolating from behaviour I’ve seen in other animals, and who knows if I was even right about  them? I feel a deep need to interpret what I see, to make sense of it.  And yet, I am aware that I walk a line between looking at animals and plants in terms of all that we have in common, and recognising how profoundly different they are, both from me and from one another. How can we celebrate all the things that we share without reducing everything to a commonality that has no room for the extraordinary variety of the creatures with which we share the planet?

The fly darts up, turns, lands back on the lilypad. It rubs its front legs together as if washing its hands, then runs a front leg over its big red eyes. It is poised, always, for flight, like a cat crouching before the pounce. When I come back an hour later a shadow has fallen over the pond, and all the frenzied activity of the morning has died down. I know nothing of where the fly has gone, just as I know so little of the lives of all the animals in the garden when I’m not actually watching them. I live in the midst of mystery.

Tachinid Fly 2 Blog

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Mexican Fleabane

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…..

Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus)

Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus)

On Sunday, I decided that things in the garden had gone too far. My deciduous hedge was slapping me in the face with a wet branch every time I went to the shed to get the  bird food. I’d been allowing the stinging nettles to do their thing in a quiet corner, but they had busted out and were popping up all along the path, patinating my ankles with blisters. The branch on the whitebeam was so low that my husband nearly brained himself everytime he went to collect the washing. A little judicious, gentle pruning and a modicum of cutting down and pulling up was required, just to make the garden habitable for people, plants and animals.

I went to collect the green wheelie bin for the bits that we couldn’t compost or put in the log-pile. It lives in the dark alley at the side of the house, which attracts a wide variety of volunteer plants: Yellow Corydalis and Greater Celandine, Buddleia and even an intrepid Foxglove. But as I got to the darkest, dreariest part of the path, a little plant glowed up at me as if lit by moonlight: a Mexican Fleabane.

Mexican Fleabane by the wheelie bin

Mexican Fleabane by the wheelie bin

The flowers of this little plant are very similar to those of our native daisy, but it has very different habits. While our daisy is low-growing and short-stemmed, keeping its head down to avoid the blades of the mower, the Mexican Fleabane is straggly and dangly, and is most at home in tiny pockets of soil. In some parts of the country, it can be seen clinging to the gaps between the bricks in a wall, tumbling down like a floral waterfall.

Like so many of the plants I’ve discovered, it has come a long way. It was named after a Hungarian botanist and explorer with the magnificent name of  Baron Wilhelm Friedrich Karwinski von Karvin (von Karvin Karvinski). He found his sample plant in Oaxaca, Mexico. It arrived in the UK some time during the nineteenth century, and promptly ‘escaped’. Today, it is found on the west coast of North America, all over Europe and even in Japan, where it is categorized as an undesirable alien. One person’s dangerous weed is, as always, someone else’s desirable garden plant, and indeed, if you fancy a Mexican Fleabane for your garden, the online garden centre Crocus will provide you with one for 7.99 GBP.

Mexican Fleabane 3 BlogWhen I look at this plant, it makes me ponder on why we call somebody ‘weedy’. Are we complimenting them on their adaptability, toughness, resilience and savage beauty? Sadly, we are usually talking about a young man who has grown a little too tall for his girth, someone who is always picked last for the soccer team. I suppose that the Mexican Fleabane is a typical ‘weed’ in this regard – it is a droopy, unassertive little plant, a literal ‘wallflower’. Like many a human ‘weed’, however, it has the last laugh, having quietly succeeded in populating most of the planet where more aggressive, obvious plants have failed.

Mexican Fleabane 2 BlogFurthermore, it appears that it is not called ‘Fleabane’ for nothing. In less hygienic times, dried fleabane would be put into mattresses to deter biting insects, and it has been suggested that the same can be done today in the beds of dogs and cats to keep the fleas away. Certainly it’s worth a try – I know that Roundup and such chemicals work, but I always worry about how they work, and whether they have any deleterious effect on the creatures that they are used on. If any one has a go, do let me know!

So, in my brief stint of tidying up, I managed to discover a new plant. I will be delighted if it spreads – a bee was investigating the flower as I left to write this piece. I might even give it  a little encouragement.

 

 

 

Froghoppers and Cuckoo Spit

Cuckoo Spit on the lavender in the front garden

Cuckoo Spit on the lavender in the front garden

I have never known such a year for cuckoo spit. In my front garden, there must be a hundred stems of lavender that are encased in a small cloud of froth. In days gone by, it was believed that cuckoos reproduced by spitting , with each globule containing a tiny miniature bird – after all, they had no nests, and the true story of their parasitic behaviour was yet to be understood. In truth, there is a little mystery encased in the foam, but it is entomological rather than ornithological.

Last Sunday, while other people were enjoying a snooze after lunch, I advanced on my lavender plants with a soft paintbrush and my camera. I was excited because, for the first time in this blog, Bugwoman was going to be investigating an actual bug. Although the term ‘bug’ is used to describe more or less any ‘creepy-crawly’, it actually has a precise meaning: ‘bugs’ belong to the order Hermiptera, which means ‘half-wing’. Examples include shieldbugs, water boatmen and aphids. I took my paintbrush and very gently started to brush the protective bubbles aside. It was rather like partially-beaten egg white. Before long, a tiny creature could be seen.

Froghopper nymph denuded

Froghopper nymph denuded

This is the nymph of a Froghopper (Meadow Spittlebug for my readers on the other side of the Atlantic), and it looked as soft and toothsome as a freshly podded pea. It had tiny red-gold eyes, and was an extra-ordinary blue-green colour, like jade and turquoise mixed. Hidden in the foam (not in the photo) was a perfect transparent replica of itself – the little creature had recently shed its skin, and would soon be an adult, and able to head off into the world.

Froghopper nymph (Philaenus spumarus) - the Latin name means 'foam lover'

Froghopper nymph (Philaenus spumarus)

I carefully gathered the foam together with my paintbrush, and covered the nymph over again – it dived into the froth with some urgency. I made sure that I put the lavender back into the garden in a hidden place, propped up so that the nymph could move to another plant when the one that I’d cut wilted.

The foam is the only protection that Froghoppers have, and schoolchildren are always delighted by how it’s made. The bug sucks up the sap from its chosen plant, excretes what’s left, and blows air through it – so, it lives in a house built from faeces, and created by flatulence. What youngster could resist such a story? I’m surprised that they’re not all queueing up to be biologists as we speak.

The foam ‘nests’ are a perfect way of protecting the vulnerable nymphs. They are protected from desiccation, from chilling and from overheating. Most animals find the taste offensive – I imagine that the resins from some of their preferred plants, such as lavender or rosemary, would be unpleasant. Plus, many animals are visual hunters, cued by movement or by colour contrast, and so they may pass by an inert mass of white froth. All in all, the nests are a very effective way of safeguarding the young froghoppers, and mortality is low. Fortunately for my lavender plants, froghoppers are not greedy feeders, and there is little real damage to the plants, even at this concentration of nymphs.

Froghoppers don’t have ‘full’ metamorphosis – they simply shed their skins, get bigger, and change colour, until they turn into an adult.

Adult Froghopper

Adult Froghopper by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The adult Froghopper might not be the exotic beauty that it was in its youth, but then, who is? The bug relies mostly on its colouration as camouflage in times of danger, but also, as its name suggests, can hop a surprising distance to safety if needs be – recent studies have shown that it can leap 70 cm from a standing start. The colour variation amongst adults is extreme, as you can see from the photographs on the British Bug page here.

To end with, here is a lovely story about Froghoppers from the nineteenth-century poet John Clare, via Bugs Britannica (Peter Marren and Richard Mabey). Clare relates how the Froghopper nymphs were known as ‘woodseers’ or ‘wood prophets’, because they were said to predict the weather. When the head of the insect is seen upwards, it means that sunny days are expected. When the head is down, it means that rain is on the way.

Seems I’m not the only one to have been scraping the froth from Froghoppers to see what’s going on.