Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Early Bird


Robin ( Erithacus rubecula)

Last night, as I was having a final look around the garden before the sun set, I heard a bird singing. From the cherry tree next door, a Robin was sending a rather lonely, thin little song out into world. It was a hesitant sound, with something of a wheel in need of greasing about it, but nonetheless, it cheered me to think that someone was confident enough to be staking an early claim to my back garden. If you would like to have a listen for yourself, there is a link to a Robin’s song in the RSPB webpage.

And once I’d noticed the bird in my back garden, it seemed that Robins were everywhere.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Robin in a feisty mood

As I walked up the road towards Coldfall Wood, two Robins were having what my Nan would have described as ‘a bit of a barney’ in the crab apple tree. Both birds were fluffed up and flying sorties at one another, making an agitated chinking sound. Cute and cuddly they may be, but these two rivals were deadly serious in their animosity. They were oblivious to everything else that was going on and so was I – I almost fell over a pram in my haste to get a few photos. Robins are notoriously territorial, and, in the breeding season, are said to attack anything that vaguely resembles a rival, including bunches of red feathers  and small birds belonging to other species.

IMG_1156Though in the UK Robins are often called ‘Robin Redbreast’, it is quite clear that their chests are more orange than scarlet. But regardless of the accuracy of their name, they are symbols of charity and compassion. One story has it that their breast colouration came about when they tried to remove the crown of thorns from Christ’s brow, and were injured themselves. Another story tells that the feathers were burnt when the Robins brought water to souls in the fiery pit of Hell, and indeed one Welsh name for the bird is brou-rhuddyn – ‘Breast-burnt’. However, the stories surrounding Robins date back further than Christianity – they were sacred to Thor, for example. No bird is held in greater affection in Britain: the Robin features on Christmas cards as a symbol of hope and energy in the snowy midwinter, and it is an unusual person who isn’t delighted to have one in their garden. This is not the case on the Continent, however, where Robins are fair game and can end up on a skewer like so many other songbirds.

IMG_1152The European Robin is a member of the Old World Flycatcher family, which means that it is related to such rarer birds as the Stonechat and the Whinchat. None of the other members of the family have that distinctive rotund shape, however, and none of them are as tame and confiding as the Robin.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) ("Saxicola rubetra -Belgium -male-8" by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium - Braunkehlchen (Saxicola rubetra), Warchetal bei Hünningen, OstbelgienUploaded by snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) (“Saxicola rubetra -Belgium -male-8” by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (By Amurfalcon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( )

European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (By Amurfalcon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( )

As the name would suggest, all Old World Flycatchers are insectivorous, which explains why the Robin is often portrayed as the gardener’s companion, waiting on a branch for a human to turn over the soil and reveal a tasty worm or grub. However, there is evidence that Robins were following wild boar about prior to our arrival in Britain, for exactly the same reason. In truth, humans are just substitutes for hairy porcines as far as the Robin is concerned.

The European Robin is also very different from the American Robin, which is a thrush rather than a flycatcher, and is several times larger than our bird.


American Robin (Turdus migratorius) (“Turdus-migratorius-002”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

I find some of the folklore about Robins particularly evocative. There is a belief, for example, that if you kill a Robin, the hand that did the deed will always shake, as if some of the febrile energy of the bird has passed into your very bones to punish you for your iniquity. William Blake wrote that ‘A Robin Redbreast in a cage/puts all Heaven in a rage’. This little bird that has lived alongside us for so long that it is surrounded with a protective web of folklore, forbidding humans to harm it. How unfortunate that the rest of the animal world does not have  similar prohibitions against cruelty and wanton slaughter.

Back garden Robin ( Erithacus rubecula)

Wednesday Weed – Germander Speedwell

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…..

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys)

Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys)

Dear Readers, the challenge of identifying plants which are not in flower continues this week with this wonderful plant. I found it growing on a long-neglected grave in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, and with the help of the good people at the British Wildflowers Facebook group, I discovered that it is Germander Speedwell, not Ground Ivy or any of a number of other possibilities. How do I know? Well, the stems of plants in the Speedwell family are round, unlike the square stems of the Deadnettle family, and also, a close look at the stem of the plant shows that there are two rows of long white hairs on either side of the stem. Of course, if it had been in flower there would have been no problem.

Note the diagnostic white hairs on the stem of the speedwell

Note the diagnostic white hairs on the stem of the speedwell

Germander Speedwell in flower (Tony Atkin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Germander Speedwell in flower (Tony Atkin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

There is so much to love about this little plant. I love the deeply-veined, softly-triangular leaves. I love the intense blue of the flowers, with their two stamen that look for all the world like the antennae of bees ( all speedwells have only two stamen). Perhaps most of all, I love that because the flowers wilt very quickly after picking, it is named ‘Men’s Faithfulness’ in German. The flowers also drop from the stems very easy, giving the plant the alternative names of ‘Farewell’ and ‘Goodbye’.  I imagine the robust heroines of Wagnerian opera looking at a drooping, flowerless posy of speedwell in much the same way as I do when presented with a bunch of yellowing chrysanthemums from the garage on Valentine’s Day. This is one plant that is definitely best appreciated where it is found.

IMG_1118Normally, the Germander Speedwell is fertilized by flies, but the flowers will close during the rain, which means that the pollinators can’t get in. If the downpour lasts for long enough, the plant will self-pollinate, which is a handy tactic when times are hard, though not good for the species long-term. Still, the weather in every summer is something of a lottery, and it’s always good to have something to fall back on when times are hard.

The white centre of the plant gives rise to several of its alternative names (© Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

The white centre of the plant gives rise to several of its alternative names (© Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Germander Speedwell is also known as Cats-eye, or Birds-eye, probably as a result of its white centre spot. But the name Speedwell relates to the belief that it was a blessing for those about to go on a journey, and in Ireland they were sometimes sewn onto the jackets of travellers for good luck. They also have a reputation as a gout cure, and as a vulnerary ( a healer of wounds). There is certainly something very uplifting about those pure blue flowers, but even without them I found it a most endearing plant. Although the person whose grave it covers has long since been forgotten, it felt as if the Speedwell was wishing them good luck on their journey, wherever the destination might be.













The Mondrian Bird

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

Dear readers, there is something about the stark black and white patterning of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, combined with the red patch of the vent, that reminds me of the paintings of Mondrian.

Piet Mondrian, 1926 - Composition in Red,Blue, Gold and Black

Piet Mondrian, 1926 – Composition in Red,Blue, Gold and Black

This bird is a female – the males have a small patch of red on the back of their heads, and the juveniles have a complete red cap.

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker (By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Male Great Spotted Woodpecker (By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Juvenile Great spotted Woodpecker (By Jason Thompson (Flickr: Great Spotted woodpecker (juvenile)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Juvenile Great spotted Woodpecker (By Jason Thompson (Flickr: Great Spotted woodpecker (juvenile)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

But, regardless of sex, these birds are in charge of the suet feeder from the moment that they arrive on their stiff wings. They stab the suet pellets with their stiletto beaks, propping themselves up with their stiff tail feathers. They live their lives at forty-five degrees to the vertical, hopping up the trunks of trees and hammering away with such vigor that they would no doubt give themselves concussion if they didn’t have shock absorbers in their skulls.

I tend to see the woodpecker in the garden during the winter. In spring and summer, they spend much more time in Coldfall Wood. Last week, as I walked through the hornbeams, I heard an extraordinary sound, midway between a creak and a drumroll. I followed the noise, eager to see if it was what I thought it was. After some time standing at the bottom of a tree, almost falling backwards as I leaned further and further back, I saw this:

A woodpecker was drumming away on a dead branch, the sound echoing through the trees. The bird’s head was just a blur as he knocked his beak repeatedly against the wood – he is able to make between five and twenty strikes per half second. This wasn’t an attempt to make a nest hole – he was declaring his territory. After every session of drumming he looked around, as if listening, and sure enough, another bird was answering his challenge from the other side of the wood. Both male and female Great Spotted Woodpeckers drum, which makes me think that they share a territory during the breeding season, and that both sexes are involved in defending it.

I wondered if the Woodpecker was choosing his branch with care, in order to make the maximum amount of noise. If so, he joins an elite company of animals who use the world around them to create displays. I am thinking particularly of a male chimpanzee that I knew in Cameroon, who would choose a hollow tree to kick when he was displaying over all others, presumably because of its deep, bass-drum quality.

And then there was a cackle and another Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared. The two birds flew up and clashed wings, like dragonflies, before heading out over the houses. A third bird also joined in, possibly the original bird’s mate, so for a few seconds the blue sky was patterned with black and white and red shapes. And then, all was silent again. But there was no doubt in my mind that spring had already begun, and the great battle to reproduce had started all over again. As broken as the world sometimes seems, the great engine of the seasons is still working.

To see a short video of one of the woodpeckers drumming, please see below. Quality isn’t great, but you can hear the bird (though you might want to take a seasickness pill before viewing 🙂 )












Wednesday Weed – Box-Leaved Honeysuckle

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…..

Box-leaved Honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata)

Box-leaved Honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata)

Dear Readers, when I was in Coldfall Wood last week I found this plant lurking by the Everglades, a winter pond where the water level is now nearly up to the boardwalk.

IMG_1107I must admit I was stumped. There is something a bit privet-like about it, but I had a feeling I’d seen the plant somewhere before.

IMG_1103And then I remembered. I’d seen it in supermarket car parks! A little research was in order and, with the aid of my botanist friends, I discovered that it was Box-Leaved Honeysuckle. It is being used in a lot of municipal planting to replace Box (Buxus sempervirens), as there is a lot of Box Blight about, a fungal disease which turns the leaves brown and leaves big bare patches. Members of the honeysuckle family are immune to Box Blight, and so have become very popular.

Of course, this doesn’t explain what my plant is doing, bang-smack in the middle of a wood.

IMG_1105We normally associate Honeysuckle with the golden-flowered climbing plant, spilling its scent into the warm summer air. But there are 180 species, of which over a hundred, including my plant, originated in China. Box-leaved Honeysuckle was brought to England in about 1900, and has been recorded ‘in the wild’ since about 1950. So this is a neophyte, a newbie, a brand new addition to our semi-wild flora.

‘If I were you, I’d dig it up’ said one of my botanical correspondents.

Box-leaved Honeysuckle in flower ("Lonicera pileata flowers 001" by User:SB_Johnny - Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Box-leaved Honeysuckle in flower (“Lonicera pileata flowers 001” by User:SB_Johnny – Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

But here I have a problem. This is an urban wood, surrounded by gardens, allotments and a cemetery. If I start digging up all the plants that aren’t native, I will need a veritable army of minions with spades to help me. There’s the cherry laurel, the horse chestnuts (well, they’re Roman), the sycamores, the stray pyracantha and even, hidden away, a teeny-tiny monkey puzzle tree. Plus, it would be a battle against overwhelming odds, as new plants are ‘jumping over the fence’ all the time. Finally, with climate change, everything is up for grabs. Plants that used to thrive are likely to start having problems. Plants that used to struggle may seize their moment. Each will bring opportunities and challenges for the creatures that rely on them.

Box-leaved Honeysuckle has several things in its favour. It provides cover for a variety of birds and small mammals, and is planted as such for game birds in some parts of the country. No less than 347 species of butterflies and moths worldwide feed on the leaves of the different Honeysuckle species, and the berries are popular with all kinds of thrushes (which probably explains how my plant got to this spot in the wood). Am I going to reject this largesse on the grounds that the plant is in the wrong place?

The berries are located on the underside of the branches, and so are very easy to miss! Thanks to the wonderful Landscape Architects' website (

The berries are located on the underside of the branches, and so are very easy to miss! Thanks to the wonderful Landscape Architects’ website (

It would be different, I think, if Coldfall Wood was that rarest of things, a pristine environment, or if Box-leaved Honeysuckle really presented some kind of threat to the ecology of the wood. But my guess is that it will enhance, rather than detract from, the biodiversity of the area. I look forward to seeing if it will flower, in spite of the deep shade, and if it will produce berries. It seems something of a free spirit, relaxing under a hornbeam tree instead of being blasted with diesel fumes in a supermarket car park. I find myself wishing it luck.




How to Save a Wood


Dear Readers, you might think that a wood that has been in existence for more than a thousand years would be well able to look after itself, but in fact such spaces are often in need of both management and protection. Fifteen years ago, Coldfall Wood was far from being the biodiverse, much-loved urban woodland that it is today. I met Linda Alliston and Ann Bronkhorst, long-time members of the Friends of Coldfall Wood, in Ann’s cosy kitchen. How had things changed?

“The Wood was full of burnt-out cars”, said Linda. “People would drive in across the Playing Fields and leave all these wrecks. Youngsters would ride their motorbikes through the Wood and buzz the dog-walkers and the mums with their prams. It was a terrible mess and it made me angry to see it”.

It was not, however, the state of the Wood that was the initial impetus to action.

Muswell Hill Playing Fields today

Muswell Hill Playing Fields today


“Word got out on the rumour mill that someone was planning to turn the Playing Fields into a Golf Driving Range”, Linda said.

I remember a Driving Range close to where I used to live. The floodlights were on until late at night, and the whole place was surrounded by an enormous chain link fence. It was an ecological desert.

“Can you imagine the impact on the bats and the other wildlife?” asked Ann.

“So, a group of us dog-walkers and some of the regular footballers who used the playing fields got together, and spoke to the council to try to prevent it”, said Linda.

This was an excellent example of ‘nipping things in the bud’. The council decided not to sell the Fields when they recognised the strength of local feeling, and so, as nothing formal had been set into motion, that was the end of that. Flushed with success, the Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood was born.

Once the threat of the Driving Range was seen off, Haringey Council set about securing the Fields so that the cars and motorbikes couldn’t access them. However, this still left the problem of the existing dumped vehicles.

“We took truck-load after truck-load of debris out”, said Linda. “We could not believe how much there was.”

Once the wood felt a little less wild and dangerous, more people felt safe about using it. But there were still several problems.

An uncoppiced area of the wood

An uncoppiced area of the wood

One was that the Hornbeam trees, which from medieval times would have been cut down regularly to make charcoal and wheel axles, had been neglected for years. The process of cutting them back, called coppicing, means that the Hornbeams don’t grow so tall and dense, and a greater variety of plants can grow. This in turn attracts more insects and birds. As it was, most of the wood was dark, gloomy and overgrown. Some management was in order.

“We were lucky to get a grant via the Lottery in 2006 to renovate the Wood”, explained Ann. “The funding was secured with Haringey’s help, and they project-managed the restoration work.”

The partnership with Haringey was a fertile one, literally. The coppicing work undertaken opened up the wood and a whole range of plants appeared. Seeds that have been buried for many years can germinate once given a little warmth and sunlight. More species of plant means more opportunities for insects and other woodland creatures. It is exciting to see new and unusual plants peeping shyly through, including Heath Groundsel, unknown elsewhere in the Borough.

In 2013, more funding was identified, again with the assistance of Haringey Council. It was decided to cut another coppice. A local woodsman, Iain Loasby, undertook the work, and used a heavy horse to take the wood out. It was a wonderful sight, which attracted a lot of local interest, even though it all took place in cold, wet January and February in order to avoid the nesting season.

The area coppiced in 2013

The area coppiced in 2013


The coppiced area looks a little stark, with the magnificent Oak trees standing amongst what looks like a wilderness of brambles and tree stumps. But looks can deceive. Again, a wide range of plants are bursting into life. Wrens sing from the wood stacks, and I cannot wait until spring to see what plants have emerged from their long sleep.

“The thing I’m most proud of, though, is the rejuvenation of the stream”, said Linda. “For years, we went from pillar to post between the council, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, but finally we got it sorted out”.

Linda handed me a newspaper clipping, showing the stream that runs through the Wood. The article describes it as an ‘open sewer’.

“It used to absolutely stink”, said Linda. “It was polluted and dangerous”.

Following a survey by Thames Water, it turned out that some of the houses that surround the wood had been victims of ‘cowboy builders’. Their plumbing had been set up so that their household waste went directly into the stream. Couple that with run-off from the roads, and you have a recipe for a very unpleasant health-hazard.

“Of course, most people didn’t even know that they were dumping their sewage into the stream, so they were horrified”, said Linda. Once the problem was identified, it was simply a case of sorting out the pipework. But there were still other sources of pollution.

“In 2006 we used some of our funding to plant a reed-bed, to help to filter out some of the run-off from the main road”, said Linda. The reeds form an interesting habitat in their own right, and I must admit to checking them for Bearded Tits every time I pass. No luck so far, but who knows? And it is certainly a fine resting place for dragonflies.


The Reed Bed. No Bearded Tits yet…..


Today, I can vouch for the crystal-clear waters of the stream, and the complete lack of smell.

Crows 17

In 2012 the Fields were granted Queen Elizabeth II Playing Fields status, which gives them protection in perpetuity. And in 2013, the Woods were designated as a Nature Reserve, which should mean that they are free from the threat of development. However, the Friends remain vigilant: they meet ten times a year to discuss what’s going on, and to plan events that will help more local people enjoy and appreciate the wonder of this little piece of ancient woodland and common ground that was so nearly ruined.

What advice, I asked, would you give to anyone who wants to protect or improve a piece of local green space?

“ You need to be persistent”, said Linda, “And I personally don’t think that shouting at people does any good. After all, the people who work for the council are human beings too. It’s much better to build relationships, so that you work together”.

“And it’s good to make links with other community organisations”, said Ann. “The Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission are both good sources of support and information. The Haringey branch of the Trust for Nature Conservation have done lots of very useful work in the wood too. And it’s also important to share information with other Friends groups. You can talk about what you’re doing, how you’re involving other local people. You can pick up excellent ideas, and make links with other people”.

“And the local press”, said Linda. “They’re always in need of copy, and can be your best friends if there’s an issue that you want to highlight or to publicise”

“You have to accept that the group itself will ebb and flow”, said Ann. “Sometimes there will be lots of people, sometimes not so many. But I do think that if there was a threat to the Wood, people would mobilise. It means a lot to a lot of people”.

For me, it was clear that a small group of people, if motivated enough, can make a huge difference to the quality of an area. What a loss it would have been if the Driving Range had been built, and if the wood had continued to be a focus for anti-social behaviour, making it feel dangerous for everyone else. As it is, it is still a wild area, but one which can accommodate everyone from children to dog walkers to runners to slightly scruffy, middle-aged women with binoculars around their necks. I am eternally grateful for the hard work and persistence of the Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood. They are true friends to these green spaces, and have helped to protect the plants and animals that regard them as home, and to ensure that future generations of humans can walk amongst the trees, take a long, deep breath and feel themselves gently relax.

The Friends of Muswell Hill Playing Fields and Coldfall Wood meet on the first Tuesday of the month at 7.30 pm at Coldfall Primary school. Their next event is a Winter Tree walk with Iain Loasby, the woodman who did the most recent coppicing. For more information, have a look at the Coldfall Wood website here.

Wednesday Weed – Hazel

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…..

Hazel Catkins (Corylus avellana)

Hazel Catkins (Corylus avellana)

Dear Readers, this week the search for a Wednesday Weed sent me in a completely different direction from my usual route. On a rainy, blustery day, I headed off towards our local primary school, to see if the playing fields there had anything growing that I had not already covered. In vain I peered through the fence at the turf, until my eyes refocused and I realised that I’d been looking at my subject all along. For what is more surprising on a January day than a plant that is already in full flower, ready to reproduce when everything else is still in bed?

Male Hazel Catkin

Male Hazel Catkin

The male Hazel catkin has the delightful colour of a sherbet-lemon. With every damp gust, invisible clouds of pollen are released. With any luck, they will be captured on by the red female flowers  who wait with open arms, a little like sea anemones.

Female Hazel Catkin

Female Hazel Catkin

It is these female flowers that will eventually turn into hazelnuts. They will promptly be nibbled off by squirrels or, if we are extremely lucky, by dormice. Kentish Cobnuts, with their creamy white interiors and little hats of pale green, are a domesticated variety of the hazelnut, but the wild variety is perfectly good to eat, and was, indeed, one of the staple foods of prehistoric peoples. Hazel has grown in the UK for at least the last 6000 years, and only birch was quicker to colonise the country after the last Ice Age. The spread of the plant throughout Europe has been attributed to its being carried from place to place by humans. After all, nuts are a concentrated, portable form of protein and carbohydrate. What better food if you’re embarking on a (very) long walk?

Hazel leaves and nuts ("Corylus avellana". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Hazel leaves and nuts (“Corylus avellana”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Hazel growing beside the school playing fields has turned itself into a small tree, but historically it is much coppiced, the stems being used for a wide variety of purposes. They are extremely flexible, and can be turned back upon themselves or knotted. They were woven together to form both hurdles and fences, and were also used as the framework for wattle and daub walls. They are still used in thatching, to hold the thatch down, because the hazel stems can be bent through 180 degrees. A more modern use is in the creation of sound screens alongside motorways.

A Wattle Hurdle ("Wattle hurdle" by Richard New Forest - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A Wattle Hurdle (“Wattle hurdle” by Richard New Forest – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Here, a Wattle gate is used to keep the animals out of the 15th Century cabbage patch ("Tacuinum Sanitatis-cabbage harvest". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Here, a Wattle gate is used to keep the animals out of the 15th Century cabbage patch. This is from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being, and well worth further study.

And here we can see a wattle and daub construction, with the twigs visible behind the mud used to make the walls (By MrPanyGoff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

And here we can see a wattle and daub construction, with the twigs visible behind the mud used to make the walls (By MrPanyGoff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

A plant which has lived alongside us in these islands since the very beginning, Hazel has many associations with Druid and Celtic beliefs. Its stems have been used for water divination, and for the making of shepherds’ crooks and pilgrims’ staffs. A Hazel tree was believed to be the home of Bile Ratha, the poetic fairy of Irish folklore, and it was believed that eating hazelnuts would bestow wisdom. On Dartmoor, Hazel was said to be the cure for snake and dog bites. And, to prevent toothache, you simply have to carry a double-hazelnut in your pocket at all times.

IMG_1044The catkins are shivering in the wintry blast, and so am I. Parents are tearing past me in their cars, hurrying to pick their children up from the school gate and giving me a decidedly funny look as I stand in the rain, peering through the fence with my camera.  I wonder if any of the children will get the chance to admire the catkins, the first sign that the long dark is finally loosening its grip. I hope that someone will take the time to show the little ones the ‘lambs tails’, and explain to them about this plant. After all, we have been living together, side by side, for six thousand years.

Spring is coming….


Dear Readers, the wind is whistling down the chimney, the rain is racketing on the skylight and the bird feeders are blowing almost horizontal in the gale, and yet I have indisputable evidence that, for some at least, spring is on the way. Earlier this week, during a muddy, blustery walk in my beloved Coldfall Wood, I heard an extraordinary cacophony coming from an area which has been coppiced, so it is a little more open than other parts of the forest. There is a large dead tree there which, with great wisdom, has been left standing. It was attracting a lot of attention.

IMG_1002The Ring-necked Parakeets, which I’ve written about in an earlier post, have arrived in force to look for nest sites. They investigated the dead tree with much interest, peering into holes, biting off chunks of bark and hanging almost upside down to make sure they had viewed their new ‘property’ from all angles. There was much ‘discussion’ about which was the best site, and much to-ing and fro-ing as each pair flew from hole to hole.

IMG_1018Here, we can see a pair – the male is the one with the dark ring around the neck. What handsome, unexpected birds they are, livening up the woods with all that lime green and teal blue, and the bright red of their beaks! They are Britain’s only parrots, and the RSPB estimates that there are about 8600 breeding pairs in the UK, nearly all of them in urban or suburban areas. A recent study showed that their presence at garden birdtables ‘put off’ other birds, but I would be interested to see, firstly, whether the parrots actually stay for very long, and also how they compare in deterrent effect with other large, energetic birds. Certainly, no one in my garden, not even the Woodpigeons, feeds near the Great Spotted Woodpecker or the Jay when he visits.

IMG_1022By staking a claim to their nest sites now, the parakeets gain an advantage over other birds, who won’t start pairing off until later in the year. By doing this, they compete with Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, who would normally use the holes. At present, though, there seems to be enough dead wood around, both in the wood and the cemetery nearby, for all three species to jog along nicely together.

IMG_1011In much of their range overseas, Ring-necked Parakeets have become a significant agricultural pest, and indeed Natural England have put them on their ‘General Licence’ of birds that can be shot without special permission if they are causing damage. One vineyard owner in Kent lost his entire crop of grapes when a flock of the birds descended and ate the lot. However, at present, this is a rare occurrence, and the sight of parakeets setting up home in a North London wood is more a cause for delight than trepidation. Let us be generous here, and enjoy these vivid, feisty birds as they bring a hint of the summer to come to our windswept, damp, dreary landscape.


Wednesday Weed – Hedge Mustard

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…..

Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale)

Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) with caterpillar ‘guest’ at the bottom left….

At this time of year, nearly every plant that I look at seems tired and worn, as if hanging on desperately waiting for spring to come. So imagine my surprise to find this plant looking  green and new and ready to flower. Furthermore, it came with its own little green caterpillar attached, which I didn’t notice until somebody pointed it out to me. This is Hedge Mustard, and I think that its three-lobed leaves look a little like peacocks in flight, or even angels.

IMG_0943Hedge Mustard is a member of the Brassicaceae, or cabbage family, and its leaves are edible, though the wonderful Permaculture website suggests using them in a stir-fry rather than raw. It also has a long history as an ‘Official’ herb of apothecaries (hence it’s Latin name, Officinale). Hedge Mustard was considered by the Greeks to be the cure for all poisons, and in Tibetan medicine it is used to help in cases of food poisoning.

Hedge Mustard is considered particularly useful for throat ailments – one alternative name is ‘Singer’s Plant’. In my ‘day job’ I am an IT Trainer, and so I spend a lot of time trying to teach people to use some financial software. Much of this involves persuading people not to do a particular thing, or press a particular button. As soon as I have said this, someone is always drawn irresistibly to do what I’ve asked them not to. I am sure that the slightly shouty aftermath of these events is one of the causes of my occasional voice loss, which results in my having to make do with gesticulation and sad little raspy noises, much like a snake with laryngitis.  I have therefore made a note of exactly where this patch of Hedge Mustard is, lest I need to gather some leaves and mix them with honey or sugar to make a syrup to restore me to my usual emphatic self.

I must confess that I had some difficulty in identifying this plant, and had to call in some help from the British Wild Flowers Facebook group. The consensus is that it is most likely Hedge Mustard, but could possibly be something slightly more interesting and obscure – Sisymbrium loeselii or False London Rocket. However, as the leaves are practically identical, I am going with the most likely identification, and if it turns out to be something rarer I will let you know. Plants in leaf are often a little tricky. There isn’t so much of a problem once the plant is in full flower.

Hedge Mustard in flower (By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hedge Mustard in flower (By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

One difficulty with identification is that the shape of the leaves changes so drastically as the plant ages. A mature plant might spend the winter as a mere whirl of leaves before breaking into exuberant growth. If you look at the photograph above, you can see how the characteristic ‘angel’ shape of the lower leaves has changed into something much more elongated. I will go back to visit ‘my’ plant later in the year to see how it is metamorphosing. The more I learn, the more I realise what I don’t know. It’s as if I am climbing an endless hilly landscape – every time I get to the top, new areas ripe for investigation appear. But oh, how I love the view!

Hedge Mustard flower (By Andreas Kammann; Dr. Heike Esch ( [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hedge Mustard flower (By Andreas Kammann; Dr. Heike Esch ( [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

And, for anyone curious about the caterpillar in the first photograph, this is what it will look like when it grows up…

Angle Shades Moth (Phlogophora meticulosa) (Stu's Images [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Angle Shades Moth (Phlogophora meticulosa) (Stu’s Images [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)






The New Feeder

IMG_0893As a Christmas present to myself, and to the birds, I decided to buy a new bird feeder. I don’t usually include peanuts on the bill of fare, but this terracotta acorn rather took my fancy. I dangled it from a branch of next door’s cherry tree, filled it up, and sat back to see what happened.

“Well,” I thought to myself. “For once, the little birds will have somewhere to feed that isn’t mobbed by squirrels or bigger birds”.

And to start with, I was right.

Great Tit checking out the new feeder

Great Tit checking out the new feeder

But not for long.


Jay (Garrulus glandarius) sussing out the new feeder

I have been visited by Jays before. With the oak trees of Coldfall Wood less than a quarter of a mile away, it’s not surprising that they sometimes pop in. In the fall, Jays eat thousands of acorns and bury what they can’t eat immediately. Many an oak seedling has started its life as a forgotten part of a Jay’s larder. But it has been over a year since I’ve seen a Jay. How did this one work out that there was something of interest? I know of their intelligence, but their food-finding ability is uncanny.

IMG_0872The Jay is one of the shyest of the British crows and is also the most brightly coloured. This has not always been to its advantage: the iridescent blue wing feathers were much coveted by milliners, and were used to make fishing flies. These, coupled with its  striking russet-pink body feathers, and the sharp black-and-white markings on the face, combine to make a bird that looks, as W.H. Hudson once wrote, ‘not altogether unworthy of being called the British Bird of Paradise’. Many a novice birdwatcher has mistaken it for something altogether more exotic and rare, such as a Roller.

A good view of those turquoise wing feathers

A good view of those turquoise wing feathers

The bird turned his head from side to side, trying to judge his angle of approach. After all, the feeder was hanging from a flimsy branch, and had no obvious perches.

IMG_0892Not that that was going to stop him.

IMG_0888Each visit was so fast that it felt like a smash and grab. The jay hoovered up a beakful of peanuts and flew off.

IMG_0885It was as if I’d imagined my visitor. Surely nothing so bright and daring could have stopped by this ordinary suburban garden? The feeder swung gently from side to side, rocked by the Jay’s volition, until finally it hung still. When I checked it later, it was as if it had been wiped clean. Not a single peanut was left.