Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Laceweaver

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The Laceweaver Spider who lives on the outside of my living room window. Here, she is tackling a stray dandelion seed that has blown into her web.

Dear readers, I don’t have a television, so like a Victorian matriarch I have to make my own entertainment. For the past few weeks, courtesy of the very bright orange streetlight installed by Barnet Council, I have been watching a spider who had made her home on the outside of my living room sash window. As soon as it gets dark, she ventures out, for she has many things to do.

For a start, she has to tidy up her web. It stretches from the catch in the middle to the frame at the side, and then down to the bottom of the window. The silk is thick where it supports the structure, but in between there are horizontal layers of frayed, slightly furry looking material, which the spider combs into a velcro-like texture with her back legs. She spends an hour doing this, before turning her attention to a dandelion seed which has got tangled in the corner.

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At first, she tries to cut it out. I can see the whole web shaking as she tries to bite around the fluffy seed, but everytime she has part of it freed up, another part gets entangled. In the end, she trusses it up and retreats to her silk-lined home in the corner of the window, waiting for an unsuspecting moth to arrive.

Laceweaver Spider (Amaurobius similis) tidying up her web

Laceweaver Spider (Amaurobius similis) tidying up her web

Laceweaver, or Lace-Webbed Spiders, are handsome creatures – they  have a shiny head and legs, and a white-edged marking on their abdomens, which can lead the nervous to believe that they are some kind of Black Widow. In fact, they can bite humans, but are generally placid and unassuming creatures, happy to get on with their lives under cover of darkness.

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On Thursday, however, I was laying on the sofa watching the spider when I noticed that she was not alone. A much smaller spider was approaching hesitantly from the area of the window catch. The little spider was delicately plucking the web with a front leg, as if sounding one note on a guitar.

I had seen this behaviour before. In a flurry of blankets and keys, I grabbed my camera and headed out of my front door, to see if I could get a photo of whatever happened next.

The little spider was a male, come a-courting. What would happen next?

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The little male spider is just to the right of the window catch.

The female spider started running across the web like a racehorse out of a gate. If the male doesn’t get his musical serenade quite right, the female spider will eat him, though whether this is because of his poor musical ability or because she thinks he’s a moth is not known. The male spider retreated and froze, and the female slowed down, stopped and headed back to the comfort of the window frame. What a relief.

The male spider

The male spider

I didn’t see the male again, but I checked the web and there were no signs of any trussed up prey, so either he has been successful, or he has wandered off to try his luck elsewhere. Who knows if we will soon hear the patter of tiny spider feet?

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A Laceweaver spider will lay up to forty eggs, and will protect them, and later the spiderlings, from anything that threatens them. However, once the baby spiders have eaten their egg sacs, they will eat their mother, who by this time is several years old and close to death. The protein from their mothers body will support the little spiders until they are big enough to catch their own prey. If such a happy/tragic event were to happen, I will certainly let you know, although part of me hopes that this spider will remain a spinster (in every sense of the word), living a peaceful life in my sash window cord-return, unmated but uneaten.

As I stand outside my window, flashing away with my camera, I notice a few lights going on in the houses across the street. What can someone be doing at this hour of the night, I can hear them thinking. Has Bugwoman attracted the attention of the paparazzi? I sheepishly retreat back into the house. The real reason that I am standing in the rain, in my fluffy slippers, taking a flash photo of my own front room window would, I suspect, be even more difficult to explain.

 

Wednesday Weed – Duckweed

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…..

Duckweed (Lemna minor)

Duckweed (Lemna minor)

If you visit any still body of water at this time of year, you can be fairly sure to see a covering of tiny green plants. Sometimes, the whole of a pond or canal will be blanketed under the leaves, as if it were a bowling green – indeed, in the Second World War some people believed that this plant was grown on purpose to disguise the waterways. What we are looking at is Duckweed, one of the smallest flowering plants in the world, a prodigious multiplier and a great source of food for ducks (hence the name), and for pond fish.

 

Each group of leaves can split to form new plants...

Each group of leaves can split to form new plants…

The secret of Duckweed’s ability to cover whole ponds is down to its method of reproduction. Although it can produce flowers, it generally grows by division – each cluster of leaves can split into separate plants. This means that the plant can double its size in less than five days. One of the joys of the internet is that it allows anyone, whatever their passion, space to enthuse, and so, for a lovely little film illustrating how Duckweed grows, have a look at this from ‘The Charm of Duckweed’ site (click on the link to ‘Growth’ in the second sentence of the first paragraph).

Why does Duckweed sometimes grow so quickly? Well, it grows in ponds with high nutrient levels (particularly nitrates and phosphates). This gives me an indication that the falling leaves and other debris in my pond are starting to make the water a little too ‘rich’, and I should be a bit more meticulous about extracting them than I was last year. However, all is not lost – as Duckweed grows, it absorbs some of these nutrients, and so, provided I make sure that it is skimmed from the surface regularly, it’s actually a useful way of helping the pond water to become less of a stew. I always allow any plant matter that I remove to sit on the side of the pond for a few days, to allow the water creatures to return. After that, it’s excellent compost.

Duckweed Blog 2When Duckweed is removed from the water, it’s easy to see the long single roots that come from each cluster of leaves. It always reminds me a little of mustard and cress, and indeed it’s so full of fat and protein that it is grown for poultry and fish food.

One question that puzzles me a little is how Duckweed ended up in my pond. As I’ve mentioned before, it is a long way from any other bodies of water. However, when I was handling the weed I found it clung to my hands despite much vigorous shaking, and so it is likely that it will do the same to the legs of any birds who drop in to drink. It probably arrived in my pond wrapped around the ankles of a passing blackbird.

Duckweed Blog 5Although Duckweed is an annual plant, it is able to survive the winter quite comfortably. Once the temperature drops, the plant develops little starch-filled growths called ‘turions’ which fall to the bottom of the pond and spend the winter laying peacefully amongst the hibernating frogs and dragonfly larvae. In the spring, it floats back to the surface and recommences its reproduction. Once Duckweed has arrived in a pond, it’s very difficult to eradicate.

However, I am determined to love my Duckweed, regardless of its extravagant growth. For one thing, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me:

‘The green mantle of the stagnant pool’ (King Lear, Act III Scene IV).

But the other reason is that, in previous years, I’ve spent a lot of time pulling blanket weed out of the pond. This is a thick, fibrous algae which wraps around everything, drowning insects and entangling tadpoles. This year, the Duckweed has shaded the pond to such an extent that I have no algae at all, and the water is much clearer. It’s much easier skimming off some little green leaves than pulling out great skeins of yellow-green slime. So, thank you Duckweed – as so often, a tiny, easily overlooked plant performs a big, meaty role in the ecosystem.

 

 

Something of a Can of Slugs…..

Spanish Slug (Arion vulgaris) or native Large Black Slug (red form?)

A Great Black Slug (red form) on patrol

Earlier this week, after an impressive thunderstorm, I popped into the garden and was astonished by the number of slugs gathered beneath the bird feeder, gobbling up the suet and the dried mealworms. I crouched down for a closer look . With their frilly tomato-coloured skirts, I assumed that these were the red form of the Large Black Slug, a native British slug which is mainly interested in eating decaying matter, and which is often found in compost heaps. One of the slugs was dragging along a mass of gravel attached to its back end, so I gently removed the encumbrance. The slug stopped, drew in its tentacles one by one, and contracted into a little dome.

Slug in defensive posture

Slug in defensive posture

Slugs are descended from snails, and so a slug in distress will try to withdraw into its shell. Sadly, most slugs no longer have any shell at all, and so they have to make do with sheltering under their mantle, which is slightly thicker than the rest of their skin. Their only other defence is their rather revolting mucus, which they can produce in prodigious quantities if attacked by a curious fox or cat.

However, just lately I have been regarding my slugs with a little more anxiety than previously. The headlines in the papers haven’t helped.

‘Can science stop the invasion of the giant killer slugs?’ (Guardian October 2013)

‘Catch the killer slugs! Spanish molluscs ‘on rampage’ in Britain’s gardens’ (Metro October 2013)

It appears that a close relative of our Large Black Slug, the Spanish Slug (Arion vulgaris), was identified in Norwich last year. The worry is that because it lays three times as many eggs as ‘our’ slug, it will out compete it. The Spanish Slug also has very cosmopolitan tastes – roadkill, dog faeces and even other slugs can form part of the menu, which does nothing for its public image.  At the moment, the Spanish Slug is vulnerable in this country because it can’t survive frost. But what, the scientists ask, will happen if it interbreeds with our slug, for whom winter holds no terrors? The Spanish Slug and the Great Black Slug are so closely related that they can only be told apart by having their genitalia dissected. For the non-scientist, there seems to be no easy way of distinguishing them from one another.

Spanish Slug - Arion vulgaris

A Spanish Slug (Arion vulgaris) – image from the Slugwatch website (see below)

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A Great Black Slug (Red Form) – Arion ater

So, what to do? Well, in my case, nothing. My slugs are innocent until proven guilty. I’ve got no intention of drowning them, desiccating them with salt or boiling them on the off chance that they are the Spanish species, and slug pellets are out of the question – I have too many frogs and ground beetles who eat the young slugs to risk putting down poison.

We have a great fear of ‘invasive species’ – maybe it’s partly to do with living on an island. Sometimes, the creatures and plants that set up home here do become a problem. But generally, they become absorbed into the great ecological community after a while, and everything settles down again. With climate change, we can expect to see more and more species making their home here that would not previously have survived, and at the same time other species will move. The creatures that suffer most are likely to be our upland animals and plants, who will eventually run out of places to go. Everything is changing, at an unprecedented rate, creating opportunities for some species, and sounding a death knell for others. The Spanish Slug saga is not the first of its kind, and will not be the last.

For anyone interested in more details on the Spanish Slug, or the other slug species, I can recommend the  Slugwatch website for lots of interesting information.

Wednesday Weed – Pineappleweed

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…..

Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea)

Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea)

I found this old friend growing by the side of the tarmac path in Cherry Tree Wood last week, and it brought back many memories of when I was a little girl. I grew up in Stratford, in East London, and our local park (the ‘Rec’) was full of Pineappleweed, growing up through the cracked surface of the playground and huddling along the pathways. I was entranced by the way that the crushed blooms smelled strongly of pineapple, and even today I couldn’t resist giving one or two of the flowers a little squeeze (just in the interests of research, you understand).

Pineapple Weed 02

Pineappleweed is, in fact, a member of the daisy family , and is closely related to chamomile. If you take a good long sniff after making a cup of chamomile tea, there is a distinct pineappley scent, so this seems to be a family trait. Traditionally, Pineappleweed has been eaten in salads and used to treat uterine complaints (the family name, Matricaria comes from the Latin word for womb,  ‘Matrix’). Some people believe that the scent is closer to that of crushed apples, and the plant has the vernacular name of ‘Apple Virgin’,

As with so many of the ‘weeds’ we’ve investigated, Pineappleweed is not a native – it comes from north-eastern Asia and the western part of North America and ‘escaped’ from Kew Gardens in 1871. Since then, it has travelled to most parts of the UK, and the seeds are easily transported in the tyres of motorcars, which explains the many colonies of the plant in car parks and in the cracks of roads.

In North America, Pineappleweed was used by many Native American tribes. If you haven’t yet discovered it, can I recommend having a look at Plant Biographies by Sue C.Eland? Here is part of what she has to say about Pineappleweed:

“Babies in the Crow tribe could have a perfumed cradle as it was lined with the dried, crushed plant. The dried flower heads also provided a perfume for the Montana Indian and Blackfoot tribes, and they were an ingredient in a perfume mixture used by the Cheyenne.

Both the Kuskokwagmiut and Inuktitut Inuits enjoyed the scent in their steam baths, and Kutenai Indians,who used the dried leaves, also took pleasure from the scent and even made necklaces from the dried flower heads.”

We see, in this description, the way that a plant that is ignored and unnoticed in our urban environments has been used and enjoyed in a myriad ways by other communities.

Pineappleweed from  Jan Kops 'Flora Batava'

Pineappleweed from Jan Kops ‘Flora Batava’

This humble little plant was one of the first to spark my interest in the natural world. I loved showing my friends how the plant not only looked like a pineapple, but smelled like one as well. This was enough to get me thinking about how plants are related to one another, and to start investigating the communities of animals that existed around these plants. Sometimes, a lifelong passion can be sparked from the smallest things.

The Speckled Wood Butterflies of Cherry Tree Wood

The New Improved Bald-Faced Stag

The New Improved Bald-Faced Stag

On Tuesday, I passed the Bald-Faced Stag pub at the crossroads in East Finchley. Ever since we moved here, I have felt sorry for the stag – he was painted in matt-brown, peeling paint, and looked a little like one of Santa’s Reindeer with a bad case of mange. But this week, he has been transfigured into a mythical creature, a golden stag, and every detail of his pelt and antlers shines in the intermittent sunshine. It cheers me no end to see him looking in such fine fettle and so, with a new feeling of joie de vivre, I head down to Cherry Tree Wood to see what’s going on.

I haven’t been here since May, and there is a definite feeling of autumn approaching – the leaves are already starting to turn, and there are blackberries everywhere. But there are also lots of Speckled Wood butterflies.

Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria)

Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria)

These are creatures of woods and forests, and seem to like the shady places that other butterflies shun. Because much less coppicing takes place in woodland than in previous years, Speckled Woods have been doing very well, and have extended their range right up into Scotland.  However, the males do like to find a patch of sunshine to protect as their territory, following the sun about during the day. I watched this male for some time. Everytime another Speckled Wood approached, he flew up and drove it off, battering it with his wings.

Speckled Wood rising to fight off a rival

Speckled Wood rising to fight off a rival

Speckled Wood are the only British butterflies that can survive the winter either as a chrysalis or as a caterpillar. This means that you can see adult butterflies from as early as March to the end of October. As I walked on, I noticed another Speckled Wood, but this one was a shadow of the male I’d seen earlier.

An older, more worn Speckled Wood

An older, more worn Speckled Wood

Its wings were torn, the pattern faded. It didn’t display with its wings open, but fluttered apologetically from one patch of ivy to another. Adult Speckled Woods don’t feed from flowers, but feed mainly on the honeydew spilt onto leaves by aphids, and that’s maybe what this insect was doing. The lives of most butterflies are short (sometimes only a few weeks), so it’s good that this year has had such a bright, warm early summer – the chances are that this butterfly will have reproduced, and that its green, hairy caterpillars will already be gorging themselves on couch-grass and the wonderfully named Yorkshire-Fog.

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) caterpillar, second instar

Yorkshire Fog "Holcus lanatus Gestreepte witbol (2)". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holcus_lanatus_Gestreepte_witbol_(2).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Holcus_lanatus_Gestreepte_witbol_(2).jpg

Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) Attribution here

As I messed about with my camera, I had a strong feeling that I was being watched. And, indeed, as I turned, I saw a grey squirrel standing on tippy-toe, looking at me with some curiosity.

Any nuts, missus?

Any nuts, missus?

The wood is full of squirrels at this time of year – dashing about with acorns in their mouths, growling at one another from the tops of trees, hiding behind the trunks of oaks and peering around to see if I’ve moved on yet. They are conflicted little creatures, not tame, and yet not so wild that they don’t want to stick around in case I happen to have brought a packet of peanuts with me. The one who was watching me seemed to be in a state of controlled agitation, hopeful but nervous, as he skirted past me, occasionally peering back to see if I’d dropped anything.

Onwards.

Blog August 17 08I have written before about how tame this wood seems compared to Coldfall Wood  . It has a children’s playground, a coffee kiosk, playing fields and tennis courts. It even has a somewhat decrepit toilet block. And yet, there are still wild corners here, places where people can camp out for the night, make a den, sneak out for a night of passion under the stars. I just wish they’d take their rubbish with them…

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In Coldfall Wood earlier this year, I stumbled across a double mattress that someone had managed to drag through a gate, along a narrow path through the trees and over a ditch in order not to have to lie on the ground. It seems to me to somewhat defeat the object, a little like taking some teabags and a kettle on holiday with you. But who am I to say? I can happily report that when I visited a few weeks back, the mattress had gone, though I suspect this was the work of the doughty council rubbish-collection department rather than the original users.

This is not to say that I object to people enjoying the pleasures of the natural world. As I headed home, I saw some children who had  managed to resist the lure of the climbing frames and the swings, and were climbing a tree. They fell silent as I passed, as if they expected to be shouted at. I pretended that I hadn’t seen them, and heard them giggle with relief as I went past. I had a smile on my face, too. I remember climbing trees, sitting in the branches and looking down, triumphant. It’s an adventure every child should be able to have, the chance to be wild for a few hours. What are grazed knees and torn clothing compared with a sense of freedom that can fortify a child for their whole lives?

An entrance to a secret den?

An entrance to a secret den?

 

Wednesday Weed – Tufted Vetch

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…..

Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca) growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Tufted Vetch (Vicia cracca) growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

When I was doing my exploration of St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I came across this delicate-looking, lilac-flowered plant. For all its seeming fragility, it was doing a great job of scrambling across the brambles and the bindweed. When looked at closely, it’s easy to see that this is a member of the pea family – the anchor-shaped hooks at the end of each frond of leaves are used to attach to whatever happens to be close by, and later in the year the plant will develop pods, each containing tiny ‘peas’.

A close look at Tufted Vetch makes clear that it is a type of pea....

A close look at Tufted Vetch makes clear that it is a type of pea….

Like all peas, Tufted Vetch fixes nitrogen in the soil. It does this because its roots contain nodules in which a bacteria called Rhizobia lives. While the plant is alive, the bacteria produces nitrogen compounds which help it to grow, and to compete with other plants. When the plant dies, the nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants and hence helping to fertilise the soil.  As nitrogen is one of the building blocks for DNA and for proteins, this is vital to the health of the whole ecosystem.

geograph-3614273-by-Lairich-Rig

Tufted Vetch growing over bramble – © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Another name for Tufted Vetch is Cow Vetch, because it has been widely used as forage for cattle. Like all members of the pea family, it is also a great favourite with bees. The plant is native to Europe and Asia, but has been introduced to North America, where in areas of prairie it can be more vigorous than the native plants, crowding them out, and is therefore sometimes viewed as a detrimental weed. I find this a little surprising – although it is a scrambler, Tufted Vetch doesn’t seem much of a thug, certainly not when compared to plants like Bindweed.

The true beauty of Tufted Vetch is seen when it’s growing in a tangle with Birdsfoot Trefoil and Clover, bedstraws and buttercups. The gardener and cook Sarah Raven, in her book ‘Wild Flowers’, says that:

‘I often think I would love to cut one of these combinations with a single swipe of a sickle and put it all in a vase’.

I know what she means, but how much nicer lay on your back in a meadow, look at the tangle of flowers and watch the ladybirds and butterflies going about their business.

 

 

 

 

 

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St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

 

Cemetary and Parakeets 001 If you walk through Coldfall Wood, following the trail to the playing fields, you will find a path that goes through a hole in the fence. Once through, you will find yourself in a land of tilted headstones, of tombs overgrown with ivy and brambles, of mysterious narrow paths between ancient trees. This is St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, created in 1854 to hold the dead of Camden (formerly St Pancras) and Islington Boroughs. It holds over a million dead, more than any other cemetery in the UK.

Cemetary and Parakeets 002Parts of the cemetery are beautifully manicured, but in the older parts there has been a policy of benign neglect, which has created a wonderful variety of habitats for wildlife.However, this is a place that needs to be respected, not just because of its community of the dead, but because of the dangers that disintegrating tombs and gravestones present to the unwary:

Cemetary and Parakeets 009There are open, sunny places here, where  hoverflies and bees feed on the Oxford Ragweed, and day-flying moths flitter through the sunbeams.

Cemetary and Parakeets 005However, at this time of the year, much of the cemetery is shaded and  forbidding. I lean up against a tomb for a few moments, to decide which way to walk. This place inspires silence. It makes me want to walk as carefully as a cat so that nothing is disturbed. I hear the yaffle of a green woodpecker, the steady drone of bees. A plane roars overhead. The wind rustles the leaves of the hornbeams.

Cemetary and Parakeets 010As I walk on, my eye catches sight of a movement, flying fast in the trees overhead, then cutting diagonally down to the bramble thicket opposite. A Blue Hawker dragonfly, as long as my finger, is hunting above the path. It moves almost too fast for the eye to follow, hovers, darts off again.

Blue Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in flight - I, Luc Viatour [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in flight – I, Luc Viatour [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At one point, a Large White butterfly appears above the brambles, fluttering around. The dragonfly seems to materialise behind it, so fast does it move, like a missile locked on target. I can see the way that its eyes form an almost complete translucent helmet around its head. It likes to approach its prey from below, snatching it out of the air. I am frozen to the spot.  The butterfly would have no chance of escaping this sleekest of predators, but the dragonfly seems to change its mind, and darts over to investigate me. For a few seconds, it hovers at my eyelevel, its wings a blur, and then it’s away again, up to the treetops and out of sight. I am left a little unnerved by its surveillance, as if I’ve been assessed and found wanting.

I walk on. A crow calls from a dead tree. The community of crows in Coldfall Wood and in the adjacent cemetery must number at least fifty birds. In the evening, they gather together to poke in the turf of the playing fields for insects, and, it seems to me, to share the gossip of the day. But on this quiet afternoon, one bird watches me pass.

A lone crow.

A lone crow.

I do not feel afraid here. What I feel is a deep peace, but also a great need to be respectful, not only of those million dead, but of the living plant and animal community that surrounds me. In all the time that I am here, I see only two other people, both marching through to the lawns of the more recent burial areas, with their neat rows of graves and pots of begonias, their scrubbed headstones and sorrowing angels. But it’s here, amongst the brambles and the ivy, that I would like to be buried, where dragonflies hawk and foxes yip and the crows keep watch. I would never be lonely with such august company.