Monthly Archives: September 2014

So Many Spiders….

Garden Spider 017 bpWell, it’s been a spidery sort of week. The newspapers have been full of articles about homes being invaded by giant arachnids, and there is a general air of spider-inspired hysteria. However, here in East Finchley not a single spider has crossed my threshold, in spite of my peering hopefully into every corner and checking the bath tub about three times a day. I would be delighted if a Giant Spider turned up in my house, but in spite of my lack of dusting and general housekeeping ineptitude, they have been keeping a very low profile.

Outside the house, though, it’s a different story.

Garden Spider 002 BP

Garden Spider (Araneus diademata)

This gorgeous creature is one of the four Garden spiders who have webs in my front garden. She is the largest of the bunch, and has conveniently made her web over one pane in my front-room bay window. She entertains me every night by repairing her web, cleaning her legs (one at a time) and occasionally running to wrap up some poor moth who has blundered into her trap.

Garden spiders spin webs which have a ‘signal thread’ running from somewhere near the centre to the spider’s hideaway, which is a corner of the window frame. When she is not sitting conspicuously in the centre, the spider is hiding at the top with one leg poised on signal thread, waiting for the type of vibration which means that dinner has arrived.

There is a great variety of size and colouration between the different Garden Spiders that are clustering around my front door: all of them have the distinct white spots on their abdomen, which form a rough cross-shape, but they vary in colour from orange to tan to dark brown.

Another Garden Spider - this one is much darker in colouration than the others

Another Garden Spider – this one is much darker in colouration than the others. Note the omnipresent wheelie bin.

Furthermore, they seem to have different personalities. The big spider in my bay window seems to have a calm and stolid nature, and it doesn’t matter how close I get to her, or how many times I poke my camera lense at her, she doesn’t move. The smaller spider on the web at the front of the house, however, made a run for it when I was a couple of inches away, and only paused when I withdrew to a safer distance.

Shy spider retreating ....

Shy spider retreating ….

Whilst this may sound a little anthropomorphic to the scientists amongst you, I should point out that there has been research into invertebrate ‘personality’, which found that amongst trapdoor spiders there seemed to be tendencies towards boldness and shyness that remained the same for particular individuals. Some spiders would consistently leave their tunnels to investigate a potential food source earlier than others. For the shyest spiders, the ‘reward’ had to be a full fifty percent greater than that which would lure a bold spider from his or her den. Science is finding that invertebrates are much more diverse and subtle in their behaviour than they have been given credit for in the past.

Spider Number Four with Drainpipe and Red Bricks. Should I be contacting Tate Modern, I wonder?

Spider Number Four with Drainpipe and Red Bricks. Time to contact Tate Modern, maybe?

For many people, spiders are a sure sign that late summer and autumn are on the way, which leads to the question – where are all the spiders for the rest of the year? Well, with Garden Spiders, the eggs are laid in the autumn, survive through the winter, and hatch in May. The first spiderlings are tiny, and disperse soon after hatching (otherwise, they will take to eating one another). Then, they will shed their skins up to ten times during the summer, getting a tiny bit bigger every time. Eventually, by August, they have reached their full size, and instead of hunting in the undergrowth as they did when they were little, they begin to spin webs, and so become noticeable for the first time, as if they have sprung into being from nowhere. In fact, they have been here all the time, but, like most invertebrates, have been going about their business unnoticed and unremarked.

In just a few weeks time, all of these creatures will have died. I shall have just a little more time to lay on the sofa in the evening and watch the spiders before they are gone, and my poor long-suffering husband is allowed to pull the front-room curtains. Then I will know that winter really has come.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Canadian 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…..

Canadian Fleabane (Conyza canadensis) and a wheelie-bin. And a hosepipe.

A thicket of Canadian Fleabane has erupted in the alley at the side of our house, and I am delighted. I know this is not the reaction that most people would have, but then, this week is the thirteenth anniversary of my marriage to my Torontonian husband, so a little reminder of the country that he came from is very welcome. Plus, although this plant comes from so far away, it has put down firm roots in London, and is more commonly seen in the Capital than in any other city, so in that respect it is a little like me.

Canadian Fleabane 004 BPThere are lots of plants that resemble Canadian Fleabane, but none have such a mass of tiny flowers, which at this time of year are rapidly turning into fluffy seeds. The plant was apparently brought to the UK as seeds in the innards of a stuffed bird, back in the sixteenth century (unlike my husband who arrived into Heathrow in a big metal bird twenty-odd years ago).

Canadian Fleabane 003 BPIn many ways, Canadian Fleabane is a ‘proper’ weed – it’s an annual which produces thousands of seeds, and which can grow in the most unpromising of spots, as its appearance in my dark, soil-less side alley proves. But, as with so many plants, it has a myriad of helpful uses. A tea made from the plant is said to be helpful for arthritis and for diarrhoea, and it has also been used to combat hay-fever. Like so many fleabanes, it is also said to be good for deterring insect parasites.

Some wind-blown Canadian Fleabane

Some wind-blown Canadian Fleabane

I can’t help but admire a plant that can erupt from a crack a hairs-width wide and grow to four feet high in a single season.  This afternoon, the little seeds were flying away in the breezy weather, taking their chances on a new land far from where they started. And, thinking of my soulmate who flourished so far from his native soil, I find myself wishing them luck.

Bugwoman on Location – Berlin

Berlin 002 BPEvery city that I visit seems to have a presiding spirit, a bird that is omnipresent but often goes unnoticed. In Prague, it was the Jackdaws, who filled the air with their chinking cries and aerial acrobatics. In London, it’s the feral pigeons. But in Berlin, it’s the Hooded Crows.

These are a bird that I associate with the wilds of Scotland rather than the centre of a bustling conurbation, but in Berlin any dropped currywurst will attract a little party of corvids, hopping over and inspecting the food with their heads on one side, and then picking out the meat, while the sparrows chip away at the bread.

Berlin 002 CroppedWhat handsome birds they are, these Hooded Crows. I followed the one in the picture for a short while as he turned over leaves, inspected a litter bin, called a few times and headed off into the trees. He was intensely alert, always with an eye open for an opportunity. There is no doubt in my mind about their intense intelligence, their adaptability or their resilience. Through the whole of the twentieth century they have looked on at the follies of human beings, at their destructiveness and cruelty. The crows were here when a handful of Jewish people struggled to survive undetected in the woods around Nazi Berlin during the Second World War. They scavenged alongside the starving women of the city after it had been reduced to rubble. They hopped over the Berlin Wall to feed on both sides. And today, they are living the high life in the newly tolerant, tourist-friendly Berlin of trendy suburbs and vegetarian restaurants.

But at night, if you look up as you walk along Unter den Linden, you will see the crows flying home. A few crows flying along a side street will meet up with crows coming from another direction, until there are great squadrons of them, lit from underneath by the streetlights. How good that the only things that now overfly this city are birds, rather than warplanes and missiles.

Berlin is something of an urban wildlife hotspot. The parks and lakes and woodland harbour woodpeckers and red squirrels, dragonflies and deer. In the suburban town of Kopenick, you may stumble over a wild boar sow feeding her piglets on the pavement, and there are an estimated 500 families of raccoons in Berlin, descended from 20 who were released when an Allied bomb destroyed the fur farm where they were incarcerated. You do not have to go far to feel that you are no longer in an urban environment, and whilst Berliners seem to feel at home in their city, the hearts of many citizens are in the wilder country that surrounds it. At the first sign of good weather many people head for the ‘beaches’ around the lakes, or out for a hike.

On our last day in Berlin, we went for a walk to the district of Prenzlauer Berg, in the east of the city. This was a working-class district that was also favoured by artists and writers, and was next to the Berlin wall. Nowadays, it is a very desirable location, but these apartments have no gardens, just a courtyard to hang the washing in, and a few windowboxes. So, here on the street,  the Berliners have created a painted garden of sunflowers and daisies, roses and violets. As I walk along these streets, under the shade of the London Plane trees, hearing the sparrows chirruping around the cafes, I am happy that this tumultuous, troubled, troubling city is having a period of peace.

Berlin BP 2Berlin BP 5 BerlinBP 4

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Michaelmas Daisy

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…..

The Cup of Gold 010This small, lilac member of the daisy family seems to be popping up all over the place in my half-mile territory. These photos were taken in Coldfall Wood, where it makes the dried-up winter pond look like an Impressionist painting. But this delicate-looking plant has had a long journey. It comes originally from North America (it was introduced to England by John Tradescant in 1633), and it is a prairie plant rather than a woodland one. Nonetheless, it seems to made itself at home in all kinds of damp and neglected places, bringing a wash of pale lavender amongst the green

This is not an easy plant to identify at the species level. We have Common, Confused, Narrow-Leaved, Glaucous, Hairy and Changing Michaelmas Daisies, and every possible hybrid. As I squint at my photographs, I suspect that my daisies are Confused . On a bad day, I know exactly how they feel.

The Cup of Gold 011The great thing about Michaelmas Daisies, as anyone who has planted them deliberately will know, is that they are full of energy and colour when most other plants are giving up. They seem to be particularly attractive to hoverflies, a creature that prefers flat, easily-accessible blossoms.

The Cup of Gold 009Until 1752, this plant was known as Starwort. But when the Gregorian calendar was introduced, it was renamed the Michaelmas Daisy because its flowering coincided with St Michael’s Day on 29th September. However, I rather like the notion of a patch of Starworts, flowering under the harvest moon in a tiny ancient wood in North London, just as they have done for hundreds of years.

 

The Cup of Gold

The Cup of Gold 002

During the past week, my husband John and I have been going for a walk around Coldfall Wood after dinner every night. We can both sense that the darkness comes a little earlier with every passing day, and soon, it will be night time before he gets home.

When I open the gate to the wood, it’s as if I’ve entered another world. The branches of the oak and hornbeam meet overhead, so the area underneath is still and dark, the only sounds the chippy calls of robins sorting out their territories. These are ancient, twisted trees that look as if they’ve been caught out in the middle of a dance, and will start to gyrate again once we’ve moved on.

The wood is only a few hundred metres deep at this point. As we follow the path, we can see the sun setting, the space between the trees glowing copper-red, an abstract painting of molten light and matt black. As the path turns right, we are right up against the fence that separates the wood from the allotments. And there, in the fork of a small tree, I see something that makes me catch my breath.

The Cup of Gold 005

It looks as if someone has woven a delicate cup out of strands of caramel. In fact, it’s a spider’s web, layer on layer of threads twisted around and around the twigs. Beautiful in itself, it’s now backlit by the sunset. And to complete the illusion of something supernatural, every individual silken hair is moving gently in the whispering breeze.

Such moments, when we see something as if we’ve never seen it before, feel sacred to me, as if for a few moments we’ve been granted a view of the innate beauty and perfection of everything on this earth. It makes me wonder what I miss every day as I go about my business, oblivious.

In a few minutes, the sun has disappeared and the web returns to invisibility. We walk on, loop up onto the playing fields. There are dozens of crows here, digging at the turf, chatting away, walking around with their feet turned inwards and what looks like their hands behind their backs. They always remind me a little of Prince Charles – it must be that slightly self-conscious gait. Crows have such a variety of cackles and coughs and giggles and caws, and as they fly backwards and forwards from the trees to the football field, they use them all. This is a big crow community, and I wonder what they talk about.

Hitchcockian Crow

We turn back into the darkness of the wood, turn right over a tiny muddy brook, one of several that criss-cross between the trees. Towards the road, a big bed of reeds is growing, planted deliberately to try to reduce the polluted water that comes from the road above. There is a small scuffling noise in the brambles, and a rat appears. I’ve seen one here everytime I’ve taken this walk, but I have no way of knowing if it’s the same one, or if there’s a family. They seem to be especially common this year – maybe the warm weather has meant more picnics, and hence more food-waste, although the wood is normally very unlittered. The rat sits up on his haunches, gnawing at something that he holds between his little pink hands. He is surprisingly tame, and lets us approach to within ten feet before he scuttles off into the undergrowth.

The Cup of Gold 012We turn the final corner to head home. A young man wearing a beret and glasses is there with a small hairy dog. We say good evening, pass him by, go on a little further, and stop. There, amongst the dead leaves, is one of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen.

‘Hello!’ I say.  The cat looks a little unnerved, but comes forward all the same. It has a mass of long hair, in cream and tabby and swirls of grey. Its ears have little tufts on them, as if were a lynx.

‘He looks like a Norwegian Forest Cat’, I say to John. ‘What a beautiful cat’.

The young man turns.

‘Yes’, he says, “He is a Norwegian Forest Cat. He sometimes comes for a walk with us when I bring the dog out’.

The little dog rushes up to us, jumps up for a sniff and a lick and a scratch on the head

‘Careful’, says the young man, ‘He’ll cover you in mud’.

But it’s a dry evening, and so the damage is minimal.

‘It’s a bit of a pain when the cat comes out, actually’, says the young man. ‘I have to watch out for all the other dogs in case they chase him. He might be big, but he’s really soft’.

The dog runs up to the cat, who head butts him. They are obviously good friends.

And so, that finishes off a fairy-tale evening. We’ve had cups of gold, talking crows, tame rats and cats that go out for a walk with their dog and human friends. Coldfall Wood really is a magical place.

Wednesday Weed – Cuckoo-pint

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…..

Arum_maculatum_fluy_80_05052007_4

Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum)

Cuckoo-pint. Lords and Ladies. Willy Lily. Cows and Bulls. Was there ever a plant that had so many names? And all of them are associated with sex – even the innocent ‘pint’ in ‘Cuckoo-pint’ is short for pintle (slang for ‘penis’). In the spring and early summer, the inflorescence looks like a combination of pale green vulva and purple phallus, and, as we will see, nothing about this plant is straightforward.

Diagram of the 'flower' of the Cuckoo-pint

Diagram of the ‘flower’ of the Cuckoo-pint – “Diagram of Arum Maculatum” by Encyclopædia Britannica – Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Vol. 2, Page 640. Via Wikipedia

The strange green inflorescence is not actually a flower – it’s called a spathe, and the true flowers are hidden deep inside the plant. Have a look at Figure 3, in the drawing above. You can see that at the base of the spathe there is a ring of tiny blossoms. These are the male flowers, and they produce the smell of freshly-deposited animal droppings. Plus, the spathe generates its own heat – it can be fifteen degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding air. This  attracts an insect called the Owl Midge, which normally feeds on dung.

Mosca_050611_092The Owl Midge lands on the flower, and tries to find out where the droppings are. Once it has entered the ring of male flowers, it finds itself trapped overnight, and in the process of trying to escape becomes covered in pollen. When morning comes, the flies are able to escape and travel on to another Cuckoo-pint, where the same thing happens all over again.

The female flowers are below the male flowers, and it is these that turn into the scarlet-orange berries that I saw in Coldfall Wood last week. As I hadn’t previously noticed the flowers, they were a startling surprise:

Cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)

Cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)

The berries are  poisonous, resulting in tingling and swelling of the tongue and mouth. As the plant is very common, they account for a large proportion of the people who turn up in Accident and Emergency following a little spontaneous foraging (23 people between 1996 and 1999, according to the wonderful Poison Garden website – only the nightshade family was responsible for more visits).  However, rodents don’t seem to be affected by the toxin, and, as they cache any berries that they can’t eat at the time, are largely responsible for the spread of the plant from one glade to another.

To add to the otherworldliness of this extraordinary plant, its pollen glows faintly after dark – they have been called Fairy Lamps and Shiners by the people of the Fens for generations.

One might think that a toxic plant would have few practical uses, but the root of Cuckoo-pint has been used as a replacement for arrowroot, although the sauces thickened with it tended to be bitter. The root was also used in Elizabethan times as a starch for ruffs, but was said to have caused severe blistering of the launderer’s hands. It seems to me that this is a plant which would really prefer to be left alone to get on with its life without interference, and has no compunction about saying so.

 

 

The Harvestman

Harvestmen are very gregarious creatures.... By Luis Fernández García (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Harvestmen are very gregarious creatures….
By Luis Fernández García (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The house that I grew up in was in the East End of London, and didn’t have a bathroom. Instead, we had a big tin bath hanging from a nail outside in the garden. When Friday bath-night rolled around, mum and dad would lift the bath down, and drag it into the living room. But as soon as they moved it, an army of Harvestmen who were sheltering underneath would come scuttling out,  and would advance across the wall, a rustling sea of long legs advancing out in all directions.

I found them very disconcerting.  Some of them seemed very large, with a leg-span the size of my infant hand, and I knew that if one of them touched me, I would drop down dead with sheer horror. Fortunately, I grew a little less squeamish as I grew up, and so I was able to greet the Harvestman who appeared on the wall of the spare room last week with something like affection.

Harvestmen, as the name suggests, appear in the autumn, and always seem to me to be a sign of the lengthening nights and of colder temperatures. Blogpost 1They have eight legs, with the second pair much longer than all the others, as you can see from the photo above. But this creature is not a spider – it belongs to a much older group of insects, the Opiliones. A Harvestman’s body is fused together into one oval blob, with a pair of simple eyes perched on top.

Here you can see the eyes perched in a little turret called the Ocularium. Many thanks to Marshal Hedin for the great photo...

Here you can see the eyes perched in a little turret called the Ocularium. Many thanks to Marshal Hedin for the great photo…

This basic design has been around, unchanged, for over 400 million years. When I consider that Homo sapiens has only been on earth for about 200,000 years it reminds me yet again of what a recent addition to Earth’s fauna human beings are, and how disproportionate our effect on the planet has been.

The second pair of legs are longer for a reason. The Harvestman has very simple eyes, and often lives in dark places (under tin baths, for example). So, if you watch as a Harvestman moves about, you can see it tapping away with those legs like a blind person with a stick.

Harvestmen shed their legs very readily (as any unenlightened person who has ever tried to swat one can attest), and indeed the shed legs continue to twitch, probably to distract whatever attacked them in the first place. Apparently a Harvestman can live on quite happily with only four legs, provided it has at least one of that second pair intact. How someone discovered this, I dread to think.

Blogpost 2Harvestmen are completely harmless to humans – they have no venom, and feed mainly on aphids and baby slugs, although according to Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren, they do enjoy a nice slice of bread and butter in captivity. However, after I’d taken a few photos of this Harvestman, I was happy to let her go on her way (male Harvestmen have much more pronounced jaws that this one, so she was actually a Harvestwoman rather than a Harvestman). The more I know about a creature, the less fear and revulsion I feel. In fact, as the Harvestman tapped her way across the wall, looking for somewhere sheltered from my camera lens, I regarded her with something close to affection.